Building More Specific Images in Compositions

Since it takes a number of skills to write an interesting, cohesive composition, daily writing assignments alone won’t necessarily result in better writing. As a consultant, I read samples of kids’ compositions and offer suggestions for practice in any weak area. One of the most common weaknesses seems to be the use of a very limited vocabulary, resulting in vague sentences. Here are a few strategies that can help kids build more specific images in their sentences and paragraphs.

Write a simple sentence. Change it by asking the student for a more specific verb, followed by “who-what-when-where-how-why” type questions. Remember, you are modeling a procedure so that he will eventually ask himself these questions as he writes on his own.

For example, write: She did the dishes. Then ask: What’s a more specific verb? She washed the dishes. “Who? Be more specific.” Mom washed the dishes. When? Mom washed the dishes late last night. How? Mom hurriedly washed the dishes late last night. How many dishes? Mom hurriedly washed a stack of dishes late last night. With what attitude? Annoyed, Mom hurriedly washed a stack of dishes late last night.

Be sure to discuss how the image in one’s mind changes as more information is added. Children who limit their vocabulary in writing by choosing only words they can spell or the first word that comes to mind (to finish quickly) should not find this oral exercise too difficult. However, those who seem unable to offer more than a few words over and over again may have a very small speaking vocabulary. When they hesitate to answer your question, offer several words, letting them choose one so that they are contributing, not just agreeing with your choice. Otherwise, they will probably lose interest quickly.

I’ve had parents ask me about the resistant child who declares his vague sentences (The dog is brown. The dog likes to play.) to be good enough. They are afraid he will refuse to do the practice I suggest. In this case, it may be necessary to begin with a game in which the child must describe an object in the room without naming it so that “guessers” can figure it out quickly. When clues are vague, the “guessers” are free to ask questions that will help the “describer” become more specific: “Bigger than what?” If the describer has trouble becoming more specific, ask questions requiring only a yes or no answer: “Bigger than me?”

At some point, all children need to realize that the object in writing is for the reader to be able to mentally picture exactly what the writer is seeing (either with his eyes or in his mind). You may need to ask him what he pictures when you say, “The dog is brown.” When he responds, “A brown dog,” say, “Yes, but what kind of dog?” You might want to open a picture book (or the “dog” section in Worldbook Encyclopedia) to point out the variety of brown dogs.

Once a child sees the need to be specific, he still needs help building a broad vocabulary in order to meet that need. There are a variety of workbooks available. Choose the level according to the student’s speaking vocabulary rather than his age or grade level. Have students make use of regular and picture dictionaries as well.

The hands-on learner may prefer to make his own vocabulary notebook as an ongoing project and use it as a reference when he writes. Pages should have a category or question heading. Broad categories include noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. You can coordinate headings with exercises in expanding sentences: Who? What kind? Did what? How? When? The student can copy or cut and paste words from a list-spelling or vocabulary word lists or one created by the teacher-onto any appropriate pages. Let him add illustrations wherever they would be especially helpful-a block of color next to magenta, for example.

Developing skill in choosing more specific words can also be improved by practicing observation-which should already be part of math and science lessons. Here, kids learn to think in categories-building a foundation for organizational skills that are part of writing as well. Attributes blocks are an appealing and useful tool here. They are usually sold with math supplies. Kids compare blocks according to the attributes of size (big/small) shape (circle, square, rectangle, triangle), color (red, blue, yellow) and thickness (thin/thick).

Charts with categories can be used by students as they learn to become more specific about details in observing objects. I usually begin by pointing out the categories and then having the children dictate to me so that they can focus entirely on thinking. I use the following categories: (sight) size, shape, color, position of any detail, (touch) texture, what the object or a portion of the object is made of, (smell) any odor, (taste) any flavor, and (purpose) use. When I want the student to try this on his own, I usually place the chart on a clipboard so he feels a bit like a scientist as he jots down descriptive words or phrases.

When a vague answer is given, demonstrate how to become more specific by directing his thinking with a question. For instance, if he says it is big (size), ask “How big? As big as what?” If that isn’t enough direction, offer choices, “As big as a basketball? As big as a cat?” Or, have him measure the object and record the dimensions. It’s helpful to practice both types of responses in regard to size. You will probably have to train the student to use more specific responses in the color category as well. Instead of recording “green” ask, “What shade of green? Aqua? Emerald green? Lime green?” You might find it helpful to have a box of 64 Crayolas handy as a reference.

After the student has had some experience thinking in terms of categories, let him describe one of two or three similar, but not identical, objects. If he doesn’t offer enough specific detail, ask questions to guide him. Once you guess, take a turn letting him guess so that you can act as a model. To make this less difficult, use objects with more differences than similarities. Make the game more difficult by increasing the number of objects and reducing the number of variations.

The ideas suggested here can be easily adapted as games over the holidays. Decorations or foods can be described. Everyone can take a turn using taste and texture words about the meal. A “never-ending sentence” can be created by allowing the verb and word order to change as everyone takes turns adding a word or phrase to what begins as a simple sentence: The cat is black. The black cat sits. The black cat sits on the table. The black cat sitting on the table licks. The black cat sitting on the table licks the cream. Mittens, the black cat sitting on the table, licks the cream. And so on. Practice can be fun. Have a blessed holiday.