esl student doing descriptive writing on a notebook

8 ESL Descriptive Writing Activities

These sentences get the point across: 

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

But we can make them more detailed and engaging:

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. 

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.

Contents

8 Activities for Introducing ESL Students to Descriptive Writing

Here are some descriptive writing activities that will encourage your students to get creative with the English language! You can even tweak any of them to focus on certain categories of vocabulary words, such as food or travel. 

1. Transform Non-Descriptive Sentences to Descriptive

Prepare a worksheet with sentences that are 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 a Painting or Picture

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

Assign a different image to each student, then ask them to describe it using their five senses, literary device and adjectives.

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

3. Describe an Object

Let students choose an object and write a description of it for 10 minutes. 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’re ready with their descriptions, students take turns reading their descriptions. The rest of the class must try to guess the object their classmate describes.

4. Describe a Restaurant

For this activity, challenge your students to write 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 at Home

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.

Why Teach Descriptive Writing to ESL Students?

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

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 but also be a fun and creative way to practice English. After all, descriptive writing exposes them to some of the more subtle and beautiful aspects of the English language, such as diverse vocabulary and literary devices like similes and personification.

How to Make Students Aware of Descriptive Writing

Begin with explaining some of the general ideas of descriptive writing. Before students can write descriptively, they must understand the basics of descriptive writing.

Aside from 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.

Here’s a sample list of useful literary devices. Choose what you want to introduce depending on the level of your students: 

  • 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 for each. 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, and list down relevant adjectives under each. 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 different senses. 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

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.

 

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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