“What’s that?” she says, pointing at something we’re passing. “I don’t know,” I reply. “I’m driving.” My daughter and I have this exact exchange of words countless times a day. It twists my insides, how often I have to ask her to describe the object that she’s referring. Describe. Describe. Describe. I want to burn it into her head. Then, I remember that teaching kids to describe isn’t easy. They imagine you can see exactly what they see and will naturally focus on exactly the item which they’re focusing. Why, they wonder, would they need to use describing words when you should already know what they’re talking about?
As children learn to become writers, and, really, people, one of the most difficult concepts for them to learn is to describe and add details. To help them develop this concept, it’s important for parents, teachers and friends to prompt kids in discussion to use more describing words.
The next time your child points to something and says, “What’s that?”, tell him you’re not sure what he’s referring to, even if you are. Likely, he’ll point again and say, “That! That thing… what is it?” Here’s the hard part: don’t tell him what it is. Tell him you still aren’t sure (perhaps your eyes are closed or there are a lot of things he could be pointing at, or you have incredible sun glare..) and that you need him to describe it using detailed words.
You might receive silence as a response. “Describe?” He’ll question. “But can’t you see it?” Perhaps he’ll have no problem telling you it’s large, greenish brownish and ugly.
Urge him on asking, “Ugly, what kind of ugly?”
“Well,” he might say, “it has brownish bumps all over it. And the brown bumps are kind of like circles, and then he has this skin that’s brown and white and green and tan. And it’s skin is kind of bumpy, too, but not big bumps like the brown bumps.”
Keep him going and say “really?” or just stay quiet and wait for more.
“Yeah. And he has two big eyes that are golden and green and almost glowing and he’s just staring at me with them. He’s barely moving but maybe his belly is moving in and out a little bit.”
“Interesting…,” you’ll reply. “You said he’s large? Large how? Like as big as our house?”
“No! He just seems big. Like… bigger than the ant that just crawled by. Maybe bigger than my hand. Oh! And his hands have 4 skinny fingers.”
Wait longer to make sure he’s done describing — both kids and adults tend to talk more when there’s no response. Then, when you’re sure he’s done, congratulate him, “That sounds like a frog to me. You did such a great job describing it I would have been able to figure that out even with my eyes closed!”
Related reading from Julieverse
I write a lot about teaching writing strategies to children. Here are a few highlights that you’ll enjoy.
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