character development · details · student work

What does she mean add details?

My daughter shook a paper in front my face, with her other hand on her hip she said, “I lost points because she [the teacher] said I have to add more details. How do you add more details to this?”

I looked at her paper. At the top of the worksheet she wrote each of her twenty spelling words. At the bottom of the worksheet she was suppose to use two spelling words in a sentence. Hannah wrote:

The friends were partners and sometimes they are lazy.

Looking at the work, I understood Hannah’s frustration. Hannah said, “This isn’t even real writing.”

I think this is an issue for many young writers. Teachers say “add details,” but never explain the kinds of details to add. I said to Hannah, “I think you need to add some words that prove you know what the word means. You can do what Lemony Snicket does. Sometimes when he writes a word, he then defines it. One way to do this is with a parenthesis. So your sentence could go like this:

The friends were partners (two people working together) and sometimes they are lazy (don’t get their work done).”

Then I promised to bring home a Lemony Snicket book tomorrow. I doubt she’ll read the book (she is obsessed with historical fiction), but I think she will use this kind of detail in her writing. I also don’t know if this is the kind of sentence her teacher will want. So another kind of detail I want to teach her is adding an example using the word “because.” I also want to teach her the kind of detail where you reword the definition within the sentence. (These will be for another day, though.)

The friends worked together as partners and sometimes they are lazy because they talk instead of work.

Most importantly, though, I think these kinds of details ought to be taught within an authentic writing experience. This weekend Hannah wanted to write a short story, so I taught her kinds of character details. I just taught this lesson to third graders earlier in the week, so I sketched a similar picture of this chart in the top corner of Hannah’s draft.


A chart to help students learn to "add details." In this case, I'm teaching KINDS OF character DETAILS.



After we talked about kinds of character details, I encouraged her to allow her character to show the story to the reader. Here is the beginning of Hannah’s short story (historical fiction about her favorite thing — horses):

“Mooom, I really want a horse!” Laura said for the millionth time.

Mom threw her hands in the air and said, “Laura! I’m sick and tired of the complaining. You have more stuff than you need.”

Laura runs upstairs to her room and throws herself on her bed. Laura feels love in her heart for horses, but her mom won’t let her have a horse. She screams, “I WANT A HORSE!” into her pillow. She knows her mom won’t let her. So she punches her pillow, “it’s just not fair,” Laura says to herself. I’m going to sneak to Grandfather’s house.

So the next morning she put on her petticoat and her gown and her shoes. She went to the kitchen to get an apple for Snickers, her Grandfather’s horse. Snickers loves apples. She tiptoes to the stable.

Clearly Hannah is the type of writer who adds detail to her writing. She is this kind of writer because of specific teaching into her point of need. Obviously writers should add detail to their writing. However, as teachers, we should be specific in teaching kinds of details to add. Here are a handful of kinds of details lessons I teach students:

  • Character Details (Moving, Thinking, Feeling, Talking)
  • Setting Details (5 senses)
  • Important Object Details
  • Description (Character, Object, Setting) — similes & metaphors fit well into this kind of lesson, as well as adjectives
  • Non-narrative Details (Quote, Statistic, Fact, Anecdote, Definition)

How about you? What kinds of details do you encourage students to use in their writing?

13 thoughts on “What does she mean add details?

  1. I am glad that you posted this. Often students are taught to add details and even when they work with their literacy partners, they tell them to add details but really don’t explain what it means,. A few years ago, I was telling my students “to add details” to their writing when I had an epiphany. I realized that they didn’t know what it meant. To most students it means add more words (blue, red, one, two, big, huge) and then we are ready to pull out our hair! Each year I sit with my students and talk about what it means to “add details”. What really are details. Involving them in the conversation helps.


  2. I ask questions in the margins or out loud to evoke details. My students’ answers become their added details. For example, I would ask your daughter, “Since you showed your character’s emotions so well in the paragraph beginning with ‘Laura runs upstairs to her room…,” which line in that paragraph merely TELLS (rather than SHOWS) and could be deleted without really taking anything away from the story?” I would also ask, “Why does Laura wear a petticoat and a gown to run off to her grandfather’s barn?”
    The other day, during one of my weekly workshops, I asked my students to write responses to each other’s work in the margins of their partner’s short stories. Little did they know that their editorial comments were FIRST DRAFTS just like the pieces they were editing. When I had them read the comments they received to themselves, I asked, “How many of you got lists that offered comments like ‘add more details’ or ‘show, don’t tell’?” They all did (modeling their regular classroom teachers). I then asked them to change each comment into a question that directly relates to the text they read, even if only a simple “How?” or “Why?” The revisions that resulted were dramatically improved works!


  3. To Collette, I agree about “making books.” I’ve used Katie Wood Ray’s concept across grade levels, even 6th grade, and it is a sure fire winner. Works in pre-k as well. It is also an excellent intervention for struggling writers who can’t seem to get much down on paper. For some of them, the idea of making a book is way more appealing than just writing.


  4. To the “other Ruth”. I also teach first grade and I have spent most of the year using Katie Wood Ray’s (I hope I got last names in the correct order!) newest book about illustrations. I have seen SO much growth in the kids writing and illustration tecniques. I am amazed!! I had what I would call a “tradional ” workshop approach for the past 7 years, using lines and telling the kids to WRITE. Katie suggests telling the kids they are going to MAKE a book rather than write a book. I am overwhelmed at the writng they are doing! Incredible changes that I hadn’t seen in previous years!! If you haven’t seen her book, try to get your hands on a copy. This has been my “bible” for writing workshop this year.This post has also given me ideas to add detail to the writng and to still continue with the detail to to illustrations.


  5. I think this post is going to help a lot of teachers–sometimes they don’t really know themselves what they mean when telling kids to “add details”.
    As for my own classroom, my first graders are starting to play with dialog, which is what I’ll teach into for now. Much of their physical descriptions are developing in illustrations at the moment–a result of studying how illustration help tell a story/give information by including detail in drawing.
    Thanks for this post and tell Hannah I enjoyed getting a glimpse of her story!


  6. I like to teach kids about snapshots, thoughtshots, and explode-a-moment (Barry Lane). I read snippets of favorite authors and enlarge the text to show where the author used these writer’s tricks for adding details. I usually start with character and setting snapshots. I read examples from my writer’s notebooks. I also read and show samples of “real kid” work. I may model write a few lines in front to kids and think aloud my process. Then the kids give it a try. We spend several days on snapshots. I like to create short pieces for students to examine and I enlarge them and show them side-by-side. One piece might look “listy” and the other looks more like a snapshot without being a list. I ask them to look at their own snapshots and see if they think their snapshot is more like the first or second piece. Similes come up a lot and we take the time to use mentor sentences to practice similes. Invariably using a lead comes up because great snapshots have great opening lines. As kids are having a go at snapshots, I like to confer on the fly and name and notice just loud enough for a few kids to hear me. I like to say things to my co-teacher like, “Wow, Susie used an awesome verb and she didn’t even know it. It really makes her writing pop.” Sometimes when kids are first learning snapshots, they all want to share. In order not to kill the excitement, I pull sticks, and ask if they want to share their favorite line. Depending on the group, we start with a general topic such as hands or hair or teeth. They are also encouraged to find snapshots in the books they are reading. Examples are shared, collected, and discussed in reading workshop.


  7. Thanks for writing this. There are often kids that I am always seeming to say “you add to need more details” to. So far we’ve particularly talked about character and setting details in their stories. I like the other kinds of details you listed, too.


  8. I love the fact that Hannah came straight to you for help. She’s a doll!
    We’ve GOT to catch up via the telephone soon. I’m sorry I’ve been so m.i.a. Things have been hectic with Isabelle (good, but hectic). Regardless, I miss blogging with you!


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