Category Archives: Including details in writing

How to encourage the addition of more details by students

Sometimes students balk at writing more details when they have finished their first drafts.  They think they have already included plenty of details when more details would enhance the writing.

To encourage the student to write more details, on a separate piece of paper I rewrite one of the student’s sentences needing more details and suggest we go back and forth–first me, then the student–adding details.  Here are some examples.

The student originally writes, “We walked back to the pool.”  I add, “In our flipflops and bathing suits,” to the beginning of that sentence.  “Well, of course we wore our bathing suits,” says my student, so he crosses out “and our bathing suits.”  But he adds, “In our flipflops we walked to the outside pool entrance.

Another sentence the student originally writes is, “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a glass and cut his fingers.”  This time the student starts the additions by adding “soda” to “glass.”  I ask which fingers.  He crosses out “fingers” and adds “thumb and index finger.”  But then without my asking him to, he continues. “My cousin, Johnny, picked up a soda glass and cut his thumb and index fingers.  You could see the fat and blood.  My uncle drove him in a taxi to the hospital emergency room.  My uncle sent a picture to my aunt, showing Johnny doing a pose in his bandage.”  What a difference!

Another sentence my student writes is, “We walked to the gift shop.” Before I could add details, he added “to get rocky road ice cream because it was 100 degrees F.

Why did this exercise work?  By pulling the sentences out of the student’s own work and isolating them, it was easy for the student to see the plainness of the sentences.  By my offering to write some of the additional phrases, the work seemed more like a game, and he was willing to play along.

Were we working on a computer, we could have swiped the new sentences and replaced the plainer ones, making the work even easier.


I want my kids to write more this summer. Any ideas?

Yes.  First, I would let the children know that they will be writing every day this summer.  Give them time to get used to this idea.  And tell them you will be writing too.  Every assignment they do, you will do too.  Your commitment shows them how important you think writing is.


Set up a schedule for writing time and stick to it.  Some kids think summer should be a completely unscheduled time.  Dispel this myth.  Let them know that at a certain hour every day they and you will write.

If the children have a computer or tablet available, let them use it.  This will make the idea of writing daily more palatable.  (But check to be sure they are writing and not surfing or gaming.)  Research shows writers write better when they use electronic equipment, perhaps because of the ease of erasing, moving around phrases and looking up synonyms and spelling.  If you have only one such device, stagger the writing times.

Since finding a topic to write about day after day will be a problem for your children, you decide on topics ahead of time.  You know your children’s interests and experiences.  You know what they have studied in school, what hobbies they enjoy, what trips they have taken.  These are excellent topics for writing.

Insist the children create some kind of prewriting organizer for each writing assignment.  Insist too that it be detailed.  Let the children know you want to see the organizers before they begin their first drafts, and that you will show them yours.  Monday’s writing assignment could be to develop such an organizer.  Together discuss the problems and benefits of creating an organizer.

Tuesday’s assignment could be writing the first draft.  Since knowing how to begin is often a problem, help your children.  Make suggestions to one another.  Let them help you too.  Let them see you as a learner in the writing process.  Prod the child to begin, even if the beginning isn’t great.  It can be improved later.  Allow errors and mediocrity at this point.  It’s better for the writer to get into a “flow” state of mind and to continue than to stop and start to fix errors.

Wednesday’s assignment could be to write a conclusion and to begin to revise.  If the child has trouble writing a conclusion, suggest possibilities.  Then, read aloud your draft and self-correct as you go along letting the child hear how it is done.  Ask each child to read aloud his or her draft, and let him fix the errors he hears.  Suggest places that are skimpy or confusing.  Insist that the children add more details, such as proper nouns, numbers, dates, sensory information, and for examples.

Thursday’s assignment could be to continue revising.  Identify verbs and strengthen them.  Identify sentence beginnings and vary them.  Identify lengths of sentences and vary them.  Older children could identify types of sentences used and vary them.   Final drafts should be completed and printed by the end of Thursday’s writing time, or if revision takes a long time, have the children prepare their final drafts at the beginning of Friday’s writing time.

Friday’s assignment could be to evaluate each piece of writing.  Use two columns marked “Did well” and “Needs improvement.”  Start with the “Did well” column, listing things the child did well, like sticking to one idea, organizing, adding humor, writing dialog, writing clearly, using capital letters—anything which will give the child confidence.  In the “Needs improvement” column, ask the child what he or she thinks needs improvement.  Maybe limit comments to the two areas the child thinks he needs to improve the most, such as run-on sentences, using direct quotes, spelling it’s and its or remembering to use periods.

On Friday also you could agree on Monday’s topic.  If the kids need to think about it or do research, they can do that over the weekend.  Let the children suggest topics.  The more they control the process, the more willing they will be  to participate.

Lastly, hang up the finished final printed drafts on the refrigerator or someplace where they can be admired.

(If you need information on any of these parts of the process, scroll back through these blogs.  Any blog might make a good mini-lesson.)

“Ten things good writers do”

Good advice is good advice.  And so I am repeating “Ten things good writers do…” from a blog by Dr. Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert, whose weekly blog can be accessed at  The words in boldface are Dr. Shanahan’s ideas.

student thinking about what to writeGood writers make a good first impression. They rewrite their introductions and first pages many times because they know if those words don’t grab a reader, the reader will put down that piece of writing and move on. But you don’t have to be a professional writer to hook a reader in the first sentence or two.  Read this sentence by a fifth grader:

In 34 more days, I, Robert Sir Awesome the Third, am going to turn eleven.  Bha ha ha!

Or notice these introductory sentences by another fifth grader:

In a famous World Series, a slugger walked up to bat.  With the count 2-2, the slugger pointed two fingers to the bleachers in left-center field.  What happened next became a legend when the slugger walloped a moonshot into left-center field.  Home Run! 

Perplexed student writingGood writers make their endings strong, too. Good writers know how to make a reader smile or nod with satisfaction at the end of a piece of writing.

Notice how this fifth grader ends a narrative about the ordinary day he expected.

I was wrong in the morning thinking it was an ordinary day; it turned out to be a great day.

Or notice this ending paragraph by a fourth grader.

Together, my camera, my computer and I can make a movie.  You can too!  If you aren’t perfect, keep trying.  Don’t give up.  I wasn’t perfect either when I started.

boy on stool writingGood writers organize their articles and stories so that readers can follow along without getting lost or confused. Good writers use topic sentences that tell the reader what to expect. They use transition words like “first,” “next,” and “finally.” Or they use chronological order, including time words such as “in the morning,” and “later that same day.”  Notice how this first grader began a fairy tale using transitions.

Once upon a time Little Red Riding Hood was carrying a basket of blueberry muffins and walked into the woods to her grandmother’s house.  And then she spotted a wolf.

child writing in sleeping bag

Good writers rewrite.  In fact, they expect to rewrite, knowing that good writing becomes that way by improving verbs, by streamlining ideas, and by varying sentence beginnings, lengths and types.  See how this third grader revised part of an essay on sperm whales by adding more details.

Sperm whales, who dive up to two miles, are the deepest diving warm-blooded mammals on the planet.  They have the biggest brains of any animal, living and extinct.  Ridges and a triangular hump replace a dorsal fin on one third of their backs.  Two thirds of their colossal bodies look like a rectangle and one third of the body is the head.

boy writing on a window benchGood writers don’t just tell something, they show it. In informational essays, good writers give examples to show what they mean. In narratives, good writers show a character acting, such as his hand wiping away a tear, or his foot tapping, so that the reader can judge for herself if a character is sad or excited. Here is how a kindergartener showed a character.

Linus is squatting down to feel the snow. . . .Then he found sticky snow to make his snow ball out of. . . .While he was working he stuck his tongue out.

girl with pony tail on floor writingGood writers use sentences that are varied and interesting. They vary the verbs in sentences, begin sentences with different words and different parts of speech and write some long sentences and some short sentences.  Notice how this sixth grader starts an essay with a 20-word sentence followed by a six-word sentence.  He starts with a prepositional phrase but the next sentence begins with an adverb.

During Winter Break, my sister and I always vote to visit cool areas where we can ski, such as Colorado.  However, my dad rejects the idea.

girl writing and thinkingGood writers write for the ear, not the eye. Good writers read their writing aloud and listen for ideas that are not clear. If characters are speaking, good writers make characters dialog sound different from one another. Since most people don’t talk in complete sentences, good writers have their characters speak naturally, even if that breaks rules of grammar.  Notice how a second grader uses dialog to explain what a book is about.

One hot summer day Nate the great was in his garden weeding when Oliver the pest came over.  “I have lost a weed,” said Oliver.  “No problem,” said Nate the Great.  “You may have all of my weeds.”

Child writingGood writers elaborate; they try to share a lot of information and detail. Good writers provide lots of detail—numbers, dates, seasons, days of the week, proper nouns, dialog, sensory information, and examples. Good writers put themselves in the shoes of the reader and provide the information that a reader needs even if the writer already understands it. See how that same second grader uses detail.

A long time ago a family lived in a tiny house on a farm in Texas with a very wide field with wheat and corn.  On the farm they raised animals too.  For example, they raised cows, sheep, chickens, a pig and a dog.

3rd grader writing an essay.Good writers get their facts right, even when they are writing fiction. In passages about science or social studies, good writers use the proper vocabulary. They check their facts online or by talking to experts.  They go over their writing to be sure names are consistent and numbers are accurate.  Read how a first grader uses scientific facts which she researched.

The Indian or Asian Elephant is one of the important animals in Asia, living in India, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  The elephant has brown or gray wrinkled skin.  Ivory tusks grow on elephants.  They help dig roots and are used against predators.

Student writing and thinkingGood writers should know when to quit. Good writing is concise writing. The writer needs to trust that the reader will understand the first time if the writing is clear enough, so repetition isn’t necessary. And that’s why I am going to stop now.  –Mrs. K

Adding numbers enhances student writing

When I help students revise essays, we are always adding details. On their own, children rarely add enough details to their writing. They think that being general is adequate (“We flew up north” as opposed to “Mom, Dad, Lily and I flew to New York”). Sometimes the student is lazy and wants to get the writing done quickly. Sometimes the student is unwilling to hold a pencil and writes the shortest sentences possible. Sometimes the student is in a hurry to play with friends or to watch video games.  Students need to be taught that adding details is important because it makes writing far more interesting.

One kind of detail that is usually easy to add is numbers. But a  common problem with using numbers is that the child may not be sure of the exact number, so he says “some” or “a few” or “lots of.” Children want to be honest, and they think saying “twelve” students attended the party when maybe only “ten” did is dishonest. They need to be taught that it is more important to use an estimated number than it is to be absolutely accurate in student writing.

Here is a fourth grader’s description of a woven basket containing coasters. Notice how the numbers he uses add truth to the essay.

This short artistic cylinder is made from five rows connected by knots. The lid has a woven spiral with holes in between. It is 4 ½ inches tall with a diameter of 5 ½ inches. The circumference is 16.5 inches and the depth is 3.5 inches. The interesting lid is a woven spiral with five small, tan and orange shells in the middle. On the bottom of each smooth shell two rows of tiny rough teeth show. The teeth are also shiny, and the shape of the shell resembles a football.

Here is a sixth grader’s introduction to an essay about starting middle school. Notice the variety of ways this student uses numbers: to describe grades, to name a date, and to count buses, teachers and classmates.

Daniel and I have passed fifth grade and now we are starting sixth grade at Duluth Middle School which opened on August tenth, 2015, welcoming three loads of buses on a mild summer morning. On the first day I greeted my five teachers and hundreds of classmates and learned about my schedule.

Here is a first grader’s description of how to play hopscotch. She uses numbers to describe the hopscotch board.

You need chalk, pebbles, a driveway, and one kid or more for hopscotch. First, you draw a board with chalk on the driveway. It has ten boxes. The first box is a square by itself. It has the number 1 in the box. Next, the 2 and the 3 squares are right beside each other like partners. You keep repeating the boxes but the numbers go from 1 to 10. One kid goes first and throws the pebble anywhere on the hopscotch board. Then, the first player hops on one foot on the 1. And then the player hops on the 2 and the 3 at the same time. Then the player keeps going. But do not forget to pick up the pebble. When the player reaches 10 the player gets off the 10 and goes to the back of the line. Nobody wins but everybody has fun.

And lastly, here is the introduction to an essay in which a fifth grader describes himself. His bravura writing style attracts the reader, but notice how he uses numbers to enhance that style.

In 34 more days, I, Robert Sir Awesome the Third, am going to turn eleven. Bha ha ha! I will tell you about the life of a boy in the twenty-first century, or shall I say, about my life, including my sister, being the oldest child and school.

Don’t you agree that numbers increase reader interest in these student writings?

Use the cube to add detail to children’s writing

Today I worked with an eager kindergartener on writing a short paragraph. She wrote three sentences describing a sequence of events (a child standing at a table with a pitcher of milk and an empty glass, the child pouring the milk into the glass, and the child drinking the milk). Then I introduced the cube to her.

paragraph showing kindergartener's writing with details addedI had created a cube from a tissue box covered with paper. On the faces of the box I had pasted reminder words for kinds of details to add to writing. The words and phrases were “proper nouns,” “numbers,” “date, day, time, season,” “examples,” “direct quotes” and “sights, sounds, tastes, smells.”

After my student finished her paragraph, we tossed the cube. “Numbers” turned up on top. We looked for a place in her writing where she could add a number. She took out the word “a” and replaced it with the number “one.” This change was insignificant but easy for her to accomplish.

We tossed the cube again. This time “dates, days, time of day, seasons” came up. I explained what the words meant, and immediately she said, “Today.” Without my help she found a place to add “Today,” making it the first word of her paragraph.

detail suggestion cubeNext, “sights, sounds, tastes, smells” came up. We talked about the word, “milk.” I asked her if milk has a smell. “Not really,” she said. “How about a color?” “White,” she said. We found several places to put “white,” and she picked the easiest.

For the fourth and last toss of the cube, “direct quote” turned up. We had previously talked about adding how the boy felt about the milk, but she had balked at writing another sentence. However, when the cube directed her to add a direct quote, she added another sentence to the end of her writing.

This was my first time using the cube to encourage a student to add detail. It worked because the child found the cube fun to use. My experience in tutoring children to read and write is that the younger the child, the more games or gimmicks need to be incorporated into the work. Also, lessons need to be short and end before enthusiasm wanes. That is why we stopped after four throws of the cube. She was still engaged, and we needed to move on to the phonics part of her lesson.

Writing summaries of nonfiction

By middle school, today’s students are required to write summaries even though a generation ago this kind of writing began in high school. The Common Core promotes this kind of writing, as does students’ need to be able to write research papers at younger ages than in the past.

Summaries are written for many reasons:

  • Notetaking (listening to a lecture and discerning the important parts, or reading research and paraphrasing the important parts),
  • Understanding a reading passage (rewriting the main ideas to better understand them), and
  • Identifying the main points (turning an outline into a paragraph or two, or gathering information to use for later studying).

Students encounter two problems over and over when writing summaries:

  • How long should a summary be?
  • How much detail should be included in a summary?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers to either question, but here’s what I tell my middle grade students about summarizing nonfiction reading selections:

  • First, read the whole reading selection so you know what it is about and so you can judge what is important and what is not. If you don’t understand the selection, this is the time to ask questions.
  • If a reading selection has eight paragraphs, then (for middle grade students) its summary should have about eight sentences. Summaries are concise versions of the original, with major ideas included and most supporting details eliminated.
  • However, if the first paragraph or paragraphs are there only to hook the reader, then their ideas should not be included in the summary.
  • If a paragraph is a single sentence, perhaps it can be combined with another sentence in the summary. Or perhaps it is not important.
  • If a paragraph is more than five sentences, or if it contains a series of important ideas, then more than one sentence should be written to summarize it.
  • At the beginning, even before the topic sentence, the student should name the piece of writing being summarized and its author, and any particular ideas that would be helpful to the reader. The student writer should let the reader know that he is reading a summary. Sometimes this information can be included with the topic sentence.
  • Even though a summary is not an essay, a topic sentence is essential to help the reader to understand the summary.
  • A conclusion is sometimes not necessary if it would summarize the summary.
  • A good summary should be complete; that is, it should include all the important information in the original. If an author spends five paragraphs on subtopic A but only one paragraph on subtopic B, then the summary should include more information about subtopic A (about five times more) than subtopic B.
  • If the original text shows a point of view on a topic, that point of view should be replicated in the summary (letting the reader know that the point of view is that of the original author).
  • If the original text is factual and objective, so should be the summary.
  • The student writing the summary should not include his own perspective on the topic. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, for example, by using the word “only.”

How to write a summary or a nonfiction reading selection:

  • When I am teaching summaries to a student, I ask the student to write the main idea of each paragraph being read in the margin next to that paragraph or on a post-it note pasted next to the paragraph.  If the reading selection contains chapters, then I ask the student to write the main ideas of the chapter at the beginning of that chapter.
  • After each paragraph’s (or chapter’s) main idea is identified, the student needs to read all those margin notes and ask himself how they relate to the whole. Why did the author include each of those ideas in his passage? From that musing by the student often comes the topic sentence of the summary. That sentence is the most important one, from which all the others flow.
  • Information in a summary should be paraphrased. Occasionally, quotation marks can show the original words of the author being summarized, but direct quotes should be the exception, not the rule.
  • Summaries are usually written in the present tense.
  • If the summary is more than five sentences, remind the reader that this is a summary by using words like, “as author so-and-so says,” or “as article such-and-such relates.” If the summary is several paragraphs, a reminder to the reader that he is reading a summary should be included in each paragraph.