Using Picture Books for “Show Don’t Tell” Lessons

One of the hardest things for my students to do is to write their narratives vividly enough for their readers to visualize the story. I like to use picture books for this, mostly because picture books are fun, but also because picture books are really quick, easy, high-interest examples.

We start off by reading Owl Moon. This year, I uploaded the book to our shared Google Drive folder so they could all look at the story on their Chromebooks as I read. This way, they could actually read the words, which they cannot do if we sit “kindergarten style” on the floor while I read. Here is the full book online if you aren’t familiar with it: Owl Moon (That is retyped in a different font, which I think takes away some of the “feel” of the story, but it’s all I could find online. For my students, I scanned in the actual book).

I start off by summarizing the book in one sentence: a girl and her dad walk through the woods looking for owls. Then, I explain that the writer has allowed the reader to visualize the scene and feel as if they were there through the use of “showing” sentences.

The language in the book is just magical. Here are the first two pages:

I read it through once, because stopping on every page to discuss takes away from the story. Then, we go back through, page by page, and discuss which strategies the writer used to “show” the reader what it felt like to be there. It’s such a simple story, made magical through the use of language.

The next day, we read Where the Wild Things Are. (online book here: WTWTA)

This is obviously a completely different type of writing. Where the Wild Things Are is mostly composed of “telling” types of sentences. We have a discussion about why the author chose “telling” sentences (written for a younger audience, more left to the imagination, more of the story told through illustrations, etc.).

After reading the story and discussing it, I put the students into groups and give them each a photocopy of a different page. Their task is to add “showing” sentences to the page. I encourage them to add emotions, feelings, facial expressions, a description of movements, and a description of the scene in general–things that help the reader picture the scene (without the illustrations) and imagine what it was like for Max to be there. I challenge them to be creative and to use the writing strategies and figurative language we’ve been studying all year. They might get a page with text, like this one, in which this could describe what Max and the monsters are doing, what Max is feeling, how the monsters react, etc.

Or, they might get a “wild rumpus” page. Who doesn’t like a little wild rumpus? They do the same thing on these pages–describe the scene, tell how Max is feeling and what he is thinking, and tell what the monsters are doing.

It is a big challenge for them. They want to write things like “Max felt happy riding on the monster’s back”. I challenge them to SHOW “happy” instead of TELLING it. I ask them, “How do you KNOW Max is happy? What is his body doing?” and then, “What does happy feel like? What does your body feel like or look like when you’re happy?” This usually helps them write a showing sentence, something like, “Riding on the shoulders of the meanest monster of all, Max placed one hand firmly on his hip, held his head high, smiled to himself, and raised his scepter triumphantly. He closed his eyes to soak in the moment–one of the finest moments of his life, almost too good to be true–in which he was king of all the wild things.” (that one is not that great but you get the idea)

When everyone is finished, they line up in order, and we re-read the story with their additions. It’s a fun activity!

Picture books are great fun–we never really outgrow them! Have you ever thought about writing “showing” sentences instead of “telling” sentences? What is your favorite picture book?