writing workshop

Make Your Teaching Vivid: Show, Don’t Tell

As a teacher of writers some of my favorite lessons to teach students center around the idea of developing stories through the art of show, don’t tell.  We usually think of this as a means for students to take their reader to the scene and develop the feelings and truth of a story. I feel this is an accurate depiction. I have always done my best to guide students toward improving their writing with the same thought in mind, show, don’t tell. However, as teachers of writers, it can be easy to fall to the efficiency of telling our writers what to do instead of guiding them to their own conclusion by showing them the way. 

Are you showing? Are you walking your writers deeper within their thinking? The connection between this writing move and this teaching move reminded me of the iceberg theory coined by Ernest Hemingway. Sometimes we must omit ourselves a bit to allow the writer to see themselves fully. What good will I have done if I am more invested in their work than they are?

Walk with me as I share two hopeful stories of showing students the writers they are as they navigate their words.

Michaels’s Story

From across the room, I read Michael’s body language as he rereads his story. He seems disengaged, he’s dedicated to his first words and cautious to move from the comfort of his compliance. I can see him thinking, “I wrote, my words cover half a page.” I make my way closer and see a glint. He is eager by my presence and attention. We chat. He has so much to say about his topic, a heartfelt story of changes in his life and the joy he is feeling. He talked, I listened. I asked him to walk me through his writing and show me where he was taking his readers. As he read, I saw many common traits of early third grade writers. He had introduced the setting, the characters were repeatedly named, punctuation was replaced with and frequently. I asked him to read his story aloud to himself, two sentences at a time.

Me: “Listen…now listen to me read the two sentences to you. What do you notice about the sound?”

I asked him to retell this one small part of his story again. Then I ask him to read it again aloud and listen.

Michael: “That doesn’t really make sense.”

Me: “What part?”

Michael: “I hear and…and I keep saying, Stacey and Carter.”

Me: “What do you want to hear?”

Michael began crossing out and changing the flow of his piece.

Me: “Now, read it again with the next full sentence.”

Michael continued to revise.

I could have said, “I’m wondering if you’ve used and too many times in your story and that’s what is breaking the flow of your piece?” Instead, I led him to this conclusion, I walked him right up to his words, he looked at them, listened to them, when he really saw them with his storytelling eyes, he could see they did not match. Asking questions, broken down to the smallest point of entry, allowed for Michael to truly enter his words and see for himself a different way.

Scott’s Struggle

Scott was disinterested in writing. Too hard. The only association Scott had with writing was anything but good and refusal had taken hold long ago. I asked Scott, for one week, to see how many words he could write about a single topic and when he was done he could be done. I did not intervene for four days. On the fifth day, I asked him to share his word totals with me, his highest total was 15 words. I asked him what he thought he could do the following week if we worked on a plan together and set a *word goal. On that day I asked him to tell me his story, and together we determined one important word from each part. I placed four sticky notes across his notebook and wrote one word from his oral story on each–store, bathroom, worried, relieved. I discovered in this conversation that Scott had a vast vocabulary and word choice that made him a stand out writer. Scott’s issue wasn’t that he didn’t have an idea, it was the act of getting it on the page. He decided on a word goal of 17 words per day, and this is what happened the following Monday.

“Mrs. Hubbard, you aren’t going to believe this. I beat my goal. I wrote 20 words today.”

Hand on his head, exasperated, “I can’t believe it. My mom is going to be so proud of me.”

Wednesday: “Mrs. Hubbard, I wrote 27 words today. I think I need to up my goal.”

By Friday, Scott had continued to beat his goal and written 32 words. Three days ago (October 3rd), Scott wrote 42 words.

Scott: “Mrs. Hubbard, I don’t think I have ever written 42 words in one day before!”

Autumn: “Mrs. Hubbard, Scott is actually a really great writer! He read his story to me today, and it’s so funny.”

Scott sees himself as a writer. All of the pieces from his previous teachers are coming together. The missing piece was he hadn’t been able to see it before. Being shown his potential, taking the pressure away and giving him some control and space helped him drive his own destiny. Instead of focusing on “I’ll never be able to do this” he is now focused on, “I think I can do this, what’s next?”


Find the areas of your workshop where you are likely to tell students their next move. Ask yourself, can I make my teaching more vivid in the eyes of my students? How can I break these big pieces into small questions to deepen their own understandings? Most of all, how can I show my students their writing potential? We call them writers, but until they see themselves as one, we are merely telling them.


*Word count explanation: I would not normally set a word count goal for a student. As a teacher, I am rarely tied to quantity. However, in the case of this particular student, setting a simple and basic goal of merely getting words on the page was our reset button.


6 thoughts on “Make Your Teaching Vivid: Show, Don’t Tell

  1. I have changed my tune on word count. While I don’t usually require a word count, setting a goal does make a student work toward writing more words in so doing, make their writing stronger. I love the idea of show, don’t tell in teaching because it leads the students to making their own learning which is 10 times more valuable.


  2. What a great reminder that when we allow students to discover their potential in writing, the lesson learned becomes much deeper. Loved the snippets from the classroom!


  3. This post was so helpful. These were realistic examples with solutions. We all get stuck on motivating our writers!! Thank you!


  4. Betsy, I absolutely love this snapshot of your classroom and these writer’s stories. How lucky they are to have a responsive teacher who guides them to grow. Scott’s story in particular really touched me! Love this post.


    1. “Can I make my teaching more vivid in the yes of my students?” The word “vivid” reminds me of the moment that the writing comes to life for a student – seeing that face light up. It’s sort of a startled recognition of one’s own power. Once kids get a taste of it, they strive for more. I would say it’s sort of akin to being bitten by the acting bug, only writing has a longer, subtler pull!


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