One of the hardest parts of writing is perfecting the art of description. Adding vivid descriptions, or what writers call sensory details, is what brings a scene, character, or feeling to life within a piece of writing. But it’s certainly not an easy skill to master.
While students love reading pieces that contain these engaging descriptions, they often have a hard time adding them in their own writing. Below, we’ve highlighted a few ways to help you explain what sensory details are and get your students inspired to write more meaningful descriptions.
What Are Sensory Details?
Sensory details are descriptive words used within a piece of writing to evoke a mental image and/or sensation for the reader. When a writer uses rich, descriptive language that appeals to the reader’s five senses, it transports them into the scene. Not only does this help the reader become more engaged with the text, but it also increases their comprehension.
Think of it this way: have you ever listened to someone give a dull, monotonous presentation or speech? It was pretty hard to pay attention, right? At some point as they droned on, your eyes likely glazed over and your mind began to wander. Unfortunately, you probably didn’t take much—if anything—away from the presentation. You may not even remember what it was about!
In the same sense, if you read something that’s vague and boring, what happens? You probably either:
A: Get confused and frustrated.
B: Start daydreaming as you read.
C: Stop reading it entirely.
Writers who don’t include good descriptive words or imagery risk losing their readers because they can’t get a clear understanding of the characters, setting, or plot. So, when teaching your students descriptive writing, be sure to have them practice using vivid sensory details that will grasp their reader’s attention.
Examples of Sensory Details
To give you a better idea of how sensory details add interest and clarity to a piece of writing, let’s compare a few sentences that use vague descriptions versus vivid ones.
- Sentence 1: The ice cream was very cold. (vague)
- Sentence 2: The green, minty ice cream was so cold, I felt a stabbing pain behind my right eye. (vivid)
The second sentence does a much better job of engaging the reader’s senses. They might almost be able to taste and smell the mint ice cream or feel an excruciating brain freeze. This helps them relate to what the character is going through.
- Sentence 3: My dog was scared of the storm. (vague)
- Sentence 4: My 120-pound Rottweiler trembled anxiously in the corner as the lightning crashed and thunder rumbled outside. (vivid)
While the third sentence does communicate a point clearly, it still leaves the reader with questions. What kind of dog? What kind of storm? The details provided in the fourth sentence allow the reader to visualize the scene much better. It also elicits more of an emotional response as you picture a massive, seemingly fearless dog cowering in a corner. This is why using sensory details makes such a big difference in writing.
4 Steps to Teach Students to Use Sensory Details
Want your student to use better descriptions in their writing? Try these four steps to help them understand how to come up with strong sensory details.
1) Discuss the Five Senses
Our five senses help us experience the world around us. With your students, work through the following steps to develop words and descriptions using their five senses as a starting point.
- Talk about sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
- Collect words from your students that fall within each category. They will likely suggest that something can look pretty or ugly, sound loud or quiet, feel hard or soft, smell good or bad, taste yummy or gross.
- This is a great way to help them identify weak, unimaginative descriptions.
Talk about why it’s difficult to come up with sensory words in this manner. As you share, help them grasp that writing with your senses means taking time to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste what you’re trying to write about.
2) Experience the Five Senses
This is where the lesson gets fun. Gather some objects your students can experience with each of their senses, such as:
- Sweet, salty, sour, or bitter foods for them to taste
- Various textured objects that are interesting to touch
- Noise-making items to listen to
- Fragrant or aromatic things to smell
- Objects that are colorful and interesting to look at
For example, let’s say you gathered some slime, a fork, and a rock to help them experience their sense of touch. Let children take turns closing their eyes and feeling an item. Remind them to focus only on the sense of touch.
Next, hide a bell, rattle, squeaky toy, or other noise-making items in a box or bag. Have students close their eyes as you produce one of the sounds. Then, make a list together of specific words to describe it. Try this again with the other noise-making objects.
Now that you’ve experimented with touch and sound, repeat this exercise to explore more senses.
3) Pull Out the Thesaurus
A thesaurus is a writer’s best friend. Not only can this tool help your students find synonyms for repeated words that keep cropping up in their writing, it can also help them find robust words to use as sensory details.
Teach your students (or review) how to use the thesaurus. Then, ask them to look over their list of descriptive words from Step 2 and find a powerful synonym for each one. For example, perhaps they’d replace the word “rough” with “jagged,” “ringing” with “tinkling,” and “sour” with “tart.”
Once your students are done finding new words in the thesaurus, have them compare their list with the one they made at the very beginning (Step 1). They will likely agree that the new words describe the way an object looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds much better than the original ones, which will ultimately help their reader form a mental picture.
4) Practice Using Sensory Details
Now that your students have a collection of engaging words to draw from, invite them to create a poem or narrative containing sensory details! If you want to ease them into the writing process, consider starting with a descriptive writing prompt instead. Here are some ideas you can use:
Descriptive Writing Prompts for Elementary Schoolers
Do you have a younger student? Try out these prompts to get them started with sensory details!
- Main Street, USA: Your pen pal and her parents are thinking of moving to your hometown. Describe your town or city, especially the sights and scenery it offers to curious visitors.
- Surfing and Snowflakes: Would you rather spend a day catching waves by the beach or throwing snowballs at your best friend? Describe your favorite season, including the activities that make it so appealing to you.
- Pet Detective: Do you have a pet dog, cat, lizard, hamster, or turtle? Describe what it looks like. How does it behave? Does it make any sounds? Does it have a smell? Use as many sensory details as you can. If you don’t have a pet, write about another animal you’re familiar with.
Descriptive Writing Prompts for Middle Schoolers
Choose from these engaging prompts to get your middle school student excited to write!
- Happy Birthday: Birthdays are celebrated in many different ways. Describe birthday festivities in your house, including the food, gifts, and favorite family traditions.
- Welcome to the 22nd Century: Describe a car or house in the future. Which familiar items are missing? What new technology has developed, and how does it contribute to our well-being, comfort, or convenience?
- Dare to be Different: Think of the most unusual person you have known: their personality, physical qualities, etc. Then, try to capture this amazing person on paper.
Descriptive Writing Prompts for High Schoolers
Does your teenage student need some extra help with sensory details? Here are a few simple prompts for them to practice.
- Places and Spaces: Where’s the place that you feel most at ease? Is it in your bedroom? Sitting on a dock by the water? Under a certain tree at the park? In your grandma’s kitchen? Put yourself there in your mind (or even go there if you can) and describe what it’s like.
- Making Memories: Some of the best memories are made when families plan a special day together. Describe a family vacation or outing that was especially memorable for you. Where did you go? What did you do? What was it like?
- Inside Your Mind: Do you remember a certain dream or nightmare you had? It likely involved some strange or silly things. Describe everything you recall from the dream so the reader feels like they were in it with you.
Using sensory details is an incredibly important skill for students to master in order to make their writing more interesting and understandable. Hopefully this blog will leave you with some good takeaways to help your student enhance their descriptive writing.