Activity: Words That Describe

One of the best ways to become a good writer is by making it a practice to read good writing. If you want to take this to the next level, begin by analyzing good writing. One thing to look for in good writing is the choice of expressive words. By using a sensory detail form we can make a note of words that appeal to the five senses — words that describe.

There are other ways to use the Sensory Detail form.

Record and Describe

Another way to work with the Sensory Detail form is by beginning with words that describe and using them to create a story.

  • Ask your student to sit somewhere for five minutes and record what he sees, smells, hears, tastes, and feels. (This can work best at a window, outside, or in the middle of an event, such as eating dinner.)
  • Once those sensory details have been recorded, he can begin the process of telling the story.
  • First, ask him to tell the story verbally, incorporating each word. It may take several sentences to do this.
  • Finally, he can write the story on paper.

Record and Substitute

We sort of covered this in our introduction to using the sensory detail form. To flesh out the process, let’s use an example:

As he approached the stream, his heart began to thump; he summoned up, however, all his resolution, gave his horse half a score of kicks in the ribs, and attempted to dash briskly across the bridge; but instead of starting forward, the perverse old animal made a lateral movement, and ran broadside against the fence. Ichabod, whose fears increased with the delay, jerked the reins on the other side, and kicked lustily with the contrary foot: it was all in vain; his steed started, it is true, but it was only to plunge to the opposite side of the road into a thicket of brambles and alder bushes. The schoolmaster now bestowed both whip and heel upon the starveling ribs of old Gunpowder, who dashed forward, snuffling and snorting, but came to a stand just by the bridge, with a suddenness that had nearly sent his rider sprawling over his head. Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod. In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen, and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Use the form to make a note of the sensory details.


Something huge, misshapen, and towering


Snuffling and snorting of horse

Plashy tramp


Thumping heart

Starveling ribs

Questions to ask:

  • How do I know Ichabod is scared?
  • How do I know that his horse is scared?
  • What does a “starveling rib” feel like?
  • What sound would “plashy tramp” indicate?
  • Draw a picture of “something huge, misshapen, and towering.”

Use these same sensory detail words to write a few sentences or paragraphs creating a completely new story.

Using “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Washington Irving was a very descriptive writer. We can use “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to further explore sensory detail.

  • Have your student read the story or read the story aloud.
  • Note many of the annotated references. These will help your student find words that describe.
  • Explore paragraph one and note any sensory details. For example, murmur of the brook, tapping of the woodpecker.
  • At the end of the story, the text suggests looking up hundreds [!] of words in the dictionary to find the meaning of the word as it was used by Irving. Let’s not do that. Instead, explore this extensive word list choosing those words that describe and entering those words relating to the senses on the sensory detail form.

Additional Resources

Activity: Describe ~ Free Form
This first part provides the why, the form, and examples.

Dickens A Christmas Carol: A Unit Study
Another helpful work when locating words that describe. See the Suggestions for examples and ideas.

Learn to Write.

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