How Should We Teach Descriptive Writing?

How Should We Teach Descriptive Writing?


How do we know I’m not selling you a dud? I’ve been inspired by The Wisdom of Crowds: How the Many are Smarter Than the Few, (affiliate link).

The stunning premise of this book is that experts never hold enough information to make the best decisions. However, if we can aggregate the opinions of a wide range of people who have different parts of the whole picture, the aggregated judgement is as good or better than the smartest expert in the group.

So, here I am, considering myself pretty expert at English teaching and thinking to myself:

  1. You’re probably not the smartest English teacher in the group
  2. Even if you are, the group is smarter than you are

This is especially relevant to me as I am also working as a consultant one day a week, and training teachers in my own school for at least one other day a week. I am always haunted by the question, “what if I am just wrong about this?” which is why I am quite obsessive about looking at evidence of impact.

Light bulbs begin flashing by the end of the first chapter. The biggest one is labelled No More Marking.Go, on click it!

If you haven’t tried it, you must. It is brilliant for assessment. But, it is just as brilliant for aggregating group decisions. For example, asking 10 English teachers to choose their best two ways of teaching descriptive writing might conceivably result in 20 different ideas. But, using comparative judgement, all those 20 ideas keep getting compared to each other, until we end up with the best one. The Wisdom of Crowds predicts that the top two will not have been written by the same teacher.

To jump start this I wrote down 20 ideas of my own, fed them into No More Marking and invited teachers to make comparisons.

19 English teachers made 869 judgements.


Here are the top 10 ideas from this list:

  1. Practice sentence variety by asking students to look at an image and write each sentence about that image. E.g.
  • Three-word sentence.
  • Sentence with a colon.
  • Sentence with a list of noun phrases.
  • Sentence with three commas.
  • Begin the sentence with ‘although’.
  • A one sentence paragraph.
  • A sentence with four verbs (none of which can end in ‘ing’)
  • A sentence with extra information in brackets.


2. Students often don’t know how to start a description. Give them a precise order of 7 views, each to be their own paragraph:

  • birds eye view,
  • zoom to a character,
  • follow the character’s gaze to a scene,
  • move to a different character who is in that scene,
  • track from this area of the image to a part directly opposite,
  • zoom in at the middle,
  • finish with a new bird’s eye view 60 seconds after the first
  1. Give students an excellent description. Ask them to mimic the exact rhythm of these sentences, placing the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and all punctuation in exactly the same place as the original, but changing the subject matter to make it their own.


  1. Remind students that their description only has to be suggested by the picture, it does not have to resemble the picture at all, but simply be prompted by it. Practice planning a response which the student might already have prepared, which can now be adapted to the exam.


  1. Endings of descriptions are most problematic. Find examples which refer back to an earlier image, or mimic an earlier paragraph structure, focus on one character’s viewpoint. Get students to practice each of these.


  1. Endings of descriptions are most problematic. Give students the first half of an excellent description. Get them to write the second half. Give them the full description and explore the writer’s choices, especially in crafting an end to it.


  1. Writing is powered by good verbs. Give students three groups of 15 verbs. Asking them to choose one group and write a description using as many of them as possible.


  1. Show students a very good description. Give them four words per sentence which come from this description. Take the original description away, and asked them to re-construct it in their own way.


  1. Give students 4 brilliantly written descriptions and test them on their recall of these. 2 featuring contrasting characters, and 2 featuring contrasting places. Use what they can remember to write exam answers to new pictures which you show them. These 4 descriptions could fit any exam.


  1. Teach the extended metaphor explicitly, so students can extend an image for a whole paragraph. Find models of this, and write your own so that you fully understand the thought process you need to teach.

You can find the rest of the ideas at the end of the blog.


What Might We Notice?


It is noticeable that ideas about the ending of a piece of description have come out so highly. As English teachers, my instincts tell me that we spend a lot of time drilling descriptive techniques, but not teaching students that the most important element of their creative writing is actually the end. I’ve made several videos showing students that planning the ending is actually sufficient when writing a story.

The activities above, however, suggest that students can craft a great ending without planning.

The top two suggestions might both be viewed as a planning template. We could simply tell our students to follow these as a plan, no matter what the question. It is quite interesting that collectively we have decided sentence variety is far more important to our descriptions than the traditional SOAPAIMS approach of traditional descriptive writing. If we look at it purely in terms of Assessment Objective weighting, this would be ludicrous.

Again, my instinct is that we don’t prioritise sentence variety, and it is for this very reason. However, our instincts as experts in English appear to have told us that this will automatically improve the whole piece of writing – even in the assessment objective in which it is not directly assessed.



Those of you kind enough to have read my book, The Slightly Awesome Teacher, (Affiliate link) will know that my reading of the research has made me obsessed with modelling. The more we teach students from the 100% model, the better they get.

I am therefore delighted at suggestion number 3. Again, my gut instinct is that most teachers are not getting their students to do this. It has had a profound influence on my own creative writing, and is the one I practise most.

Suggestions 6, 8 and 9 are also explicitly about modelling, which I feel we usually do only at the paragraph level (because that is how much fits on a PowerPoint slide!).

I think it is also revealing that there are no examples of modelling in the 10 suggestions which did not make the cut. See the end of the post. Get modelling, my friends.



Looking at your score as a judge is incredibly revealing and helpful. No More Marking provides ‘infit’ scores, with the guidance that anything below 1.2 is good: No More Marking

And ideally below 1. The infit scores of all our 19 judges combined was 0.85, and this figure improved at each stage.

Stage 1 – 6 teachers in the same school, infit score 0.97

Stage 2 – 8 further teachers from Twitter, and 2 from my own school, infit score 0.89

Stage 3 – I had a go, infit score of 0.85

This is what both The Wisdom of Crowds and No More Marking predict – the more judgements are aggregated, the more accurate they become.


So, what of the experts?

The judges with the best infit scores were two ex-heads of English, who have also worked as English consultants. Applause to @NSMWells in first place and @ashmore_edu just in second place, with infit scores of 0.73 and 0.74 respectively. Fourth on the list is a teacher at my school, only in his second year of teaching. An exception which proves the rule? Not quite – his degree is in creative writing.

This also reveals that increasing the number of judgements helps – they judged 72, 50 and 37, respectively. I came in at fifth place, with 0.89, although I made only 19 judgements (I didn’t want to make too many in case I was way out of line with the rest of the judges) No, really! For example, as The Wisdom of Crowds predicted, I would not have picked the number one choice as my own. For me, the second option is more powerful, and I would probably have placed the winning idea third – but I was wrong.

It also revealed 4 teachers who had scores of over 1.2. What should they do, or you do if you lead a department?


Team Development

These are 4 teachers who will be easy to improve – firstly it is useful for them to find out they are out of line – lesson observation and book scrutiny would not have told them this. Moreover, this way is far less confrontational.

But how should you tackle this, or any weakness in any of the ‘expert’ knowledge of your English team? The answer is always the curriculum.


Your Curriculum

Your curriculum determines the activities your students will do, the order in which they will learn them, what precisely your teachers need to teach and the best ways you have as a team for teaching it. If your team develop it together, even the weakest teacher teaches good lessons, and all your classes make good progress. And, even the best teacher will still be prone to errors of bias – this kind of comparative decision making will help protect us against that.


Where Next?

This kind of exercise is a brilliant, efficient way to rewrite or write your curriculum for teaching writing, right from primary school.

It might be improved dramatically if you read this and post some different ideas in the comments. (I already have another for teaching the crafting of contrast, which I think is essential for the top grades). There might be 20 ideas, all better than the ones listed here.

We could then run the same process with more ideas and more teachers in a couple of months to improve our curriculum still further. Please jump in.


The Rest of the Ideas, Not in Rank Order

Ask students to imagine six movie cameras, which they will position around the scene, from very different perspectives: birds eye view close-up, tracking, slow motion, etc. Describe what each camera sees in 5 seconds of film. (Again, this would have been in my top 10 – wrong again!)

Pick 20 words from one of the poems you are studying, and use these to write a description of anything suggested by them.

Have a mnemonic to remember the descriptive techniques, e.g. SOAPAIMS, and ask students to write one sentence using the first technique, the next sentence using the next technique, until they work their way through the mnemonic.

Drill each descriptive technique in order to overlearn it. For example, a race to 10 similes about this picture. Eight metaphors, seven personifications, 20 alliterations, etc.

Photocopy a page of descriptive writing from a novel. Ask students to black out words, so that the remaining words are a poem. Present students with a picture and ask them to write a similar poem about it.

Take out all the punctuation from a descriptive text. Paste it underneath the text in a different order, and ask students to work out where the punctuation goes, so that it is all used.

Take out all the punctuation from a descriptive text, and re-arrange it in sequence, but so that each unit of meaning is on the next line. Ask students to punctuate each line break with the correct punctuation.

The beginnings of films are often very descriptive. Show the very beginning of a film without sound. Get students to write their version of it as description. Reshow it with sound. Get students to rewrite their description. (And I also love this one – tough luck Dom).

Find examples of descriptive sentences of over 35 words in length. Ask students to write their own versions with the same punctuation in the same place.

Photocopy a description. Ask students to draw a camera next to each shift in perspective. Annotate each camera with 3 words which describe that perspective. Now, give students a picture, and ask them to describe it using the same perspective shifts in the same order.