Rob Levit | November 2013

Getting Students to Use Descriptive & Specific Language

You walk into class and ask the students to write about what they did over the holidays. Some of the paragraphs read something like this: “I had fun. I got some presents. We drove to a restaurant.” Or, you ask students, “What are your goals?” and they say things like “play in the NBA” or “go to college.” Sure, great goals but along with the holiday paragraphs, they lack vivid and specific language. And here’s the rub: Flat language, flat results. Flat descriptions, flat learning. Language is a living, breathing and beautiful organism that brings life to, well, our lives. It’s how we advocate, communicate needs, learn and through our own internal language, it’s how we create our perception of the world. Given the unbelievable and mind-boggling importance of language, getting students to use sensory-rich, specific and descriptive vocabulary is essential.

This point was driven home to me recently when mentoring thirty middle school students in the wonderful Gems and Jewels/YES after-school program that I visit twice a month. We were conducting a goal-setting session using the SMART technique and one of the boys presented his goal and to my surprise and delight his goal was to catch a shark. His language was specific: naming places in Florida to fish, the type of boat he would use, the type of fishing rod and even the kind of shark – a bull shark. So, here are some tips on “how to catch a shark” or getting your students to use descriptive and specific language:

1. Provide easily accessible charts and visuals of sensory words. 

Ask students to dig deeper than words like blue and white when describing the sky. Shy away from words like “good” or “bad” or “sad” or “glad” get them to go deeper into sensory modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, gustatory, olfactory). Apple pie tastes luscious not good. The texture of the drape is velvety, not just soft. The boy doesn’t just run fast, he accelerates. Sally isn’t sad, she’s despondent. Mom isn’t happy at getting flowers from Dad, she’s giddy with delight at the bursting, sun-soaked lilies.

2. Use visual art and provocative pictures to introduce lessons in all subject areas and ask open-ended questions.

Here’s a very provocative piece of art called “The Potato Eaters” by Vincent Van Gogh. It could be used to introduce a social studies lesson on “The Working Poor” or “The  Great Depression.” Using the Harvard Project Zero Technique See/Think/Wonder, you could ask questions like:

  • What do you see? These are objective answers, merely describing the people and objects with no interpretation.
  • What do you think? Students may say “I think they are poor.” You then ask, “what makes you say that?” Dig deep until students run out of language. Make them justify their observations with language that describes and offers evidence.
  • What do you wonder? A student may ask, “I wonder what they are thinking about?” You ask, “Could you and another student have a conversation that you might reflect what they may talk about around the table?”
  • Finally, ask things like: “If you were in this picture, what would you do/wear/eat/say?” “What’s missing from the picture?” “Are there additional rooms in the house?” “Is this a family?” Keep the conversation alive.

For more in-depth knowledge of Project Zero techniques, I recommend Making Thinking Visible.

3. Use poems and creative writing to seal learning in all subject areas.

Common Core is making a big deal about writing in mathematics. Not only should students be able to solve problems but they should be able to describe how they solved a problem in writing. Moreover, students should be able to write about how mathematics can be applied in real life. Creative writing in math and science is a great assessment tool because it gives educators an opportunity to see if our students can toggle back and forth between quantitative and abstract thinking. Mathematics stresses quantitative thinking by attending to precision but its through rich-sensory language that we can assess if our students are able to think abstractly.

  • Here are some examples of creative writing: in math
  • Here are some examples of creative writing: in science

4. Use the SMART technique to get students to be specific.

I work with a lot of students whose #1 goal is to play in the NBA. Of course, being a mentor, I never rain on a child’s dream, even though I know full well the odds of this occurring are minuscule. Instead, I challenge them to create a specific goal that they can accomplish. The goal is brought down to earth, chunked down and demands performance.

  • Specific – Rather than play in the NBA, how about – “Attend every  JV practice and stay 15 minutes late after each practice to work on free throws and other drills.”
  • Measurable – “I attended every practice last month and I made a chart of the number of free throws I made versus how many I missed.”
  • Attainable – “I may have to miss a practice or two to study for a test, go to study hall or ask for extra help, so I will attend 90% of the practices.”
  • Realistic – “I want to start for the varsity team next year and get a college scholarship, but first I have to make the JV team!”
  • Timely – “Try outs are in two months, I need to start practicing now each morning before school, not a week before tryouts!”

At every opportunity ask students to dig deeper into their observations, problem-solving techniques and rationales by using descriptive and specific language!



About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.