How to teach sow don't tell in writing

How To Teach 'Show, Don't Tell' In Writing (Part 1)

Apr 30, 2023

Recently I published a post introducing the ‘show, don’t tell’ writing strategy. I talked about what the strategy is and why writers should use it, and I even included some examples of the strategy at work in published mentor texts. (Click here to read the post).

Following that post, I had a few questions from teachers asking for suggestions on ways to teach this strategy to their students.

In this post I’ll be sharing one key resource you can use to help build your students’ capacity to apply this strategy successfully in their writing (and improve their reading comprehension at the same time).


What is an emotion thesaurus?

Using the ‘show, don’t tell’ strategy requires writers to show external and internal action in place of stating outright how a character is feeling.

External action includes all the things we can see a character doing: twisting their fingers, hunching down, sprinting while looking backwards etc.

Internal action involves all the things characters feel on the inside of their bodies: butterflies in their stomach, racing heartbeat, pounding heart etc.

To build your students’ capacity to include these different types of action in their writing, it’s helpful to guide them through the process of constructing an ‘emotion thesaurus’. Where a normal thesaurus provides writers with synonym words, an emotion thesaurus provides alternative phrases to help a writer ‘show, don’t tell’ when it comes to emotions.

My fabulous writing mentor, Holly Cardamone, introduced me to the concept of an emotion thesaurus by recommending I purchase this one created for professional writers. As soon as I opened it, I could see the usefulness of a similar resource in the writing classroom.


How can writers use an emotion thesaurus?

Essentially, when a writer is revising their writing and wanting to use more ‘show, don’t tell’, they can use an emotion thesaurus to look up their feeling word (e.g. sad) and find examples of words and phrases they can use to show that their character is experiencing this feeling, rather than telling it.

When I look up the feeling of ‘sadness’ in my Emotion Thesaurus, for example, these are some of the suggestions I’m provided with:


Physical signs and behaviours:

  • A puffy face or eyes that appear red
  • Smudged makeup
  • Splotchy skin
  • Sniffing and wiping at the nose
  • Speaking less; seeming too quiet
  • Staring down at one’s hands
  • A flat, monotone voice
  • Arms hanging at the sides, slack
  • Stooped posture- a caved chest, lowered shoulders, etc.
  • A trembling chin
  • Digging for tissues
  • Slumping rather than sitting upright


Internal sensations

  • A scratchy throat
  • A runny nose
  • Soreness in the throat and lungs
  • Blurred vision
  • Lack of energy
  • The body feeling cold


Mental responses

  • Feeling like time is going slowly
  • Difficulty responding to questions
  • Turning inward; withdrawing
  • A need to be alone
  • Focusing on distractions to avoid one’s pain


Associated power verbs:

Collapse, cry, deflate, double over, drag, internalize, moan, obsess, quiver, recoil, rock, shake, shuffle, sniffle, stare.


How can classrooms create their own emotion thesaurus?

Although the published Emotion Thesaurus I use is a helpful guide for me as a professional writer, it isn’t designed for primary aged students.

Rather than purchasing this book for your students, my strong recommendation is that you co-create a class version of this resource with your students instead.

Taking your students through the steps required to create a similar thesaurus will build their all-important vocabulary knowledge as well as building their social emotional learning skills (by increasing their awareness of how body language is used to show various emotions). All of this will help improve your students’ comprehension when reading too, so this is really a win-win-win activity!


Teaching tips

Start with the most overused words.

Which emotions are your students most commonly ‘telling’ in their writing.

Emotions such as sad, angry, scared, happy and excited are perhaps the most used in students’ writing and all ripe for emotion thesaurusising.

(Yes, I just made up a new word. It’s a verb and it means to create a page of words and phrases that can be used to show an emotion, rather than tell it).

Other emotions to include could be the ones your students struggle to infer when they’re reading. E.g. these could include more nuanced emotions such as: guilt, envy, disappointment, regret and overwhelm.


Create emotion thesaurus anchor charts

Study one emotion at a time with your students. Create an anchor chart with a list of phrases and verbs students could use to show each emotion.

Having students act out the emotion will help them come up with possible words and phrases.

E.g ‘Show me what someone might look like if they’re sad. What would they be doing with their body? How is this different to what someone might look like if they’re happy? What are some words we could use to describe the things a person might do when they’re sad?

On your anchor chart, be sure to include examples of:

  • External (physical) signs- what others would see
  • Internal signs- what the character would feel on the inside
  • Potential verbs- string verbs that may be used related to this emotion

E.g. As a start, you could have an A3 sheet of paper for each of the most common emotions: sad, angry, scared, happy and excited.


Look for examples of 'show, don’t tell' in published texts

Encourage students to be on the constant lookout for examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ in the books they are reading.

Where has the writer helped you to infer how a character is feeling, without naming the exact emotion?

Have students add mentor sentences and verbs to the class anchor charts for each of the emotions. Ideally, you want your class emotion thesaurus to be a living document that’s continually expanding throughout the year.

(See this post for examples of show, don't tell in mentor texts.)


In Part 2 of this post, I'll be sharing more advice on how you can use this emotion thesaurus to explicitly teach your students how to use more 'show, don't tell' in their own writing.


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