Effective writing strategies

How To Teach ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ In Writing (Part 2)

May 14, 2023


In part 1 of my series on teaching students about the all-important ‘show, don’t tell’ strategy in writing, I introduced a helpful tool to assist students build out their vocabulary: an emotion thesaurus. (Click here to read that post)

Tools are not enough by themselves however. In order for students to get the most out of these tools, they need to be accompanied with explicit teaching on how to use them. (This is a problem often encountered in classrooms using another helpful writing tool: the writer’s notebook.) 

In this post I’ll step you through an explicit teaching sequence you can use to build your students’ capacity to use the emotion thesaurus effectively in their writing.  


A note on the ‘show, don’t tell’ strategy. 

Applying the ‘show, don’t tell’ strategy in writing is something that should be taught as part of the revising stage of the writing process. This means any explicit teaching focusing on this strategy should be done with a piece of work students have already crafted prior to the lesson (e.g. a draft narrative). 


When to teach this strategy 

Students need to see examples of what this strategy looks like in practice, before learning how to apply it in their own writing. 

Therefore, I strongly recommend you work through this sequence when introducing the strategy: 

  1. Look at examples of the ‘show, don’t tell’ strategy in mentor texts (in the same way I did in this previous post). 
  2. Commence work on building an emotion thesaurus. 
  3. Engage in explicit modelling to demonstrate how you apply this strategy to your own writing (see lesson below).  


Explicit Teaching Sequence for Implementing the Show, Don’t Tell Strategy 

Step 1 

Using a piece of writing you have previously drafted, model to your students how you go through the narrative, highlighting any feeling-related words or phrases you’ve used.  

Hint: Keywords such as ‘felt’, ‘was’ and ‘were’ are good clues for phrases involving feelings.  

E.g. He felt happy. She was sad. They were excited. 


Step 2 

Select one of the words you’ve highlighted in your draft.  

Model closing your eyes to imagine how your character was acting when they were experiencing the emotion you’ve highlighted.  

E.g. In your draft, where you’ve written ‘He was angry’, what did you picture him doing? How was he moving his body? If you were writing a script for an actor to demonstrate what the character was doing, what would you tell the actor to do at this part of the story? 

Hint: It’s often helpful to get students to think about a time when they felt this emotion themselves. E.g. Think of a time when you’ve been angry. What movements did you do -big or small- with your body? What was going on inside your body? If someone else was to look at you when you were angry, how would they know you were angry (were you crossing your arms? stamping your foot? going red in the face?) 


Step 3 

Model to students how you use your class’s emotion thesaurus to find phrases that will help ‘show the reader that your character is angry, rather than blatantly telling them. 

Read through the sample phrases and verbs in the emotion thesaurus and think aloud as you decide which verbs/phrase you will use to show your character was angry at this point in your narrative. 

Be sure to share your thinking out loud as you make this decision- this is the part that will help your writers to make better decisions in their own writing. 

WARNING: Do NOT ask your students for input here. (E.g. which phrase do you think sounds the best? Does anyone have an idea for how I could write this?) YOU are the writer of the narrative; therefore YOU are the best placed person to imagine how the character was looking / sounding / feeling at this point in your story. Allowing the students to listen in to your internal dialogue and decision making is ultimately what will make them better writers. 

(FYI: I talk more about effective explicit teaching in my ADVANCED Traits Masterclass. Click here for more information about this course). 


Step 4 

Now that your students have seen you work your way through the process, they should be ready to have a go themselves. 

Support them to work through the three steps (above) in the same way you modeled for them. Encourage them to experiment with writing a few different versions of each emotion. E.g:  

Instead of ‘he was angry’, they could try adding: 

  • He slammed the door as he went into his room. 
  • He felt like a volcano had erupted inside him. 
  • His face went red, and he felt like steam was coming out of his ears. 


Step 5 

Have students read their revised sentences to a partner to get feedback. If their partner can guess the motion they are trying to show, it means they have used the strategy effectively.  


Step 6 

Talk to your students about the fact that -like all writing strategies- the ‘show, don’t tell’ strategy should be used sparingly, as overuse can quickly tire the reader out. 

Have students reflect on their draft version and their revised versions and discuss what they have learned about effective writing. 


There you have it, an explicit lesson on revising to add more ‘show, don’t tell’ into writing. If you’d like to learn more about effective explicit instruction in the writing classroom, you can see my ADVANCED Traits Masterclass. In this course I demonstrate what modelling should look and sound like, as well as take you through how to plan lessons based on students' needs. You can read more about it here.


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