Show, Don’t Tell: 8 Delicious Activities for ESL Descriptive Writing Classes

I could smell the peppers. It was dinner time. I washed my hands. 

Sure, the sentences above get the point across. But how about this:

The sweet, burnt scent of roasting peppers hung in the air. I knew dinner was almost ready. I washed my hands, watching the dirt swirl around the sink and disappear. 

These sentences get the point across too, but they’re more detailed and engaging.

How do you get your ESL students from the first example to the second? By introducing them to the wonders of descriptive writing!

The descriptive writing activities listed in this post can be adapted for any age group and all levels of ESL learners. With a little guidance from you, your students will be writing wonderfully descriptive sentences in no time!

Why Teach Descriptive Writing to ESL Students?

What is descriptive writing?

It can basically be summed up in one short statement: Show, don’t tell. 

Look again at the two descriptions above. The first tells us what happened. The second shows us with vivid images.

Descriptive writing creates a clear image in the reader’s head. It describes something or someone accurately and in a way that makes it come alive for the reader.

For ESL learners, practicing descriptive writing can not only enhance their writing and prepare them for future English endeavors, it can also be a tool for practicing the English language in a fun and creative way.

When students write, they must utilize all their knowledge of the language, proper grammar, a diverse vocabulary and literary devices such as similes, personification and alliteration. Descriptive writing exposes them to some of the more subtle and beautiful aspects of the English Language.

How to Make Students Aware of Descriptive Writing

Begin with pre-teaching some of the general ideas of descriptive writing. Before students can write descriptively, they must understand the basics of descriptive writing. In addition to having a solid list of adjectives and adverbs at their fingertips, they should be familiar with the following concepts:

Literary Devices

Descriptive writing is more than just using adjectives and adverbs. Literary devices can help writers write descriptively. They make writing more interesting. Here’s a sample list of useful literary devices. Depending on the level of your students you may choose to introduce all of these devices or a select few (among others!):

  • Alliteration: The repetition of a sound or letter in words close to each other.
  • Imagery: The visual description of something.
  • Onomatopoeia: Words that sound like the sounds they describe.
  • Personification: Giving inanimate objects living attributes.
  • Simile: Comparing two things with the words “like” or “as.”

Practice using these devices by having students create individual sentences using each of these techniques. Give students a chance to share their sentences with the whole class.

The Five Senses

Another key element to good descriptive writing is using all five senses. Most of the time, students get into the habit of describing only what can be seen. However, it’s important to incorporate all of the senses: taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.

Write the five senses on the board. Under each, produce a list of relevant adjectives. Encourage students to share as many adjectives as they can think of.

Then ask your students to think of different ways to describe the classroom using one word from each of the columns on the board. What do they see? What do they hear? What does the classroom smell like? What does it feel like to sit in the classroom? Since the classroom has no taste (hopefully), for the taste column you can ask students to describe what they ate that morning.

Ask your students to write a few sentences individually and give them a chance to share with the class.

Reading for Imagery and Descriptive Writing

Another great way to introduce the idea of descriptive writing to your students is to have them read some examples. Read a descriptive passage (either your own or one you found online) and have students identify the literary devices and senses that are used.

Alternatively, you can give them two passages to compare and contrast, one that’s lacking descriptive language and one that describes the same thing, but more creatively.

Take it one step further by removing some of the descriptive language and asking students to use their own words to complete the passage.

8 Activities for Introducing ESL Students to Descriptive Writing

Once students are familiar with the general concepts of descriptive writing, it’s important to engage them in some exercises and activities to practice their new skills. Here are some activities you might do with your students.

These activities can be adapted for elementary-level to advanced-level students and for any age group. They can also be modified to focus on certain categories of vocabulary words. For example, one activity involves words for food, another can be used to teach vocabulary related to travel, etc. You can do one, a combination of a few or all of the activities, depending on the time you have and the interest of your students.

1. Transform the Sentences: Non-Descriptive to Descriptive

Prepare a worksheet with different sentences. The sentences should be rather basic and lacking description. Students must transform these sentences into more descriptive sentences. Remind your students to use their five senses and literary devices.

For example:

It was cold.→The air was frigid and I couldn’t feel my ears.

The car was red and fast.→The car was apple-red and could easily go 120 miles per hour.

Students can work individually or in pairs. They should share their sentences at the end of class.

2. Describe the Picture and Match it to the Description

Print out a selection of images. You can use famous paintings or photographs.

In class, give each student a different image. Ask students to describe the image using their five senses, literary devices, and adjectives.

Give them a sufficient amount of time to describe the image. Then, collect the images again and display them in front of the classroom. Students must read their descriptions and the rest of the class must try to determine which image the student is describing.

3. Describe an Object

This is more of a game. Each student quietly thinks of an object. Give them 10 minutes to describe it. Set a word minimum or maximum limit as needed and encourage them to be as descriptive as possible.

You can implement different guidelines. For example, “you can’t use any color names” or “you must use all five senses” or “you must use one literary device.”

Once they’ve selected and describe their object, students take turns reading their descriptions. The rest of the class must try to guess the object their classmate describes.

4. Describe a Restaurant

Once students are familiar with the basic literary devices and the importance of using the five senses, they can begin writing their own descriptive paragraphs.

Have them describe their favorite restaurant. In a restaurant all your senses are turned on and sight may be overwhelmed by smells and sounds.

At the end of class, ask for students to volunteer to share their descriptions before you collect their work.

5. Describe Your Best Friend or Family Member

This activity is great for focusing on other types of descriptions. In addition to describing appearances, students may also describe things such as mannerisms, feelings and characteristics.

Students should share their descriptions with the class.

6. Describe a Favorite Food

I like this activity because it’s easy for students to simply describe the taste or sight of their favorite food, but they should also work on describing the smell of the food as it is prepared and the texture of the food in their mouths.

You can introduce different vocabulary related to food such as: salty, bitter, sweet and spicy.

Again, make sure you save time at the end of class for students to share their descriptions.

7. Describe Your Favorite Room in Your House

Another nice activity that gets students thinking is describing their favorite room in their home.

Students should think about size, colors, the atmosphere and furniture, among other things. Make sure you ask them to say why it’s their favorite room.

Save time at the end of the lesson for them to share what they wrote if they want.

8. Describe Your Best or Worst Vacation

This activity encourages students to bring their reader into the vacation. They must describe the setting, order of events, and the people who were with them.

If you have time, encourage them to write about both a great vacation and an awful vacation, which will make them work with descriptions and words of both positive and negative connotation.


These activities will really get your students thinking about writing and writing descriptively. And remember, get creative yourself! Descriptive writing can be applied to just about any topic.

Happy writing!

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