Show, Not Tell: The Bane of my Existence... Until Now

So if you are in the middle of a personal narrative unit for writing, you know about the struggle I'm about to mention. The whole, "Show your readers what you mean- don't just tell them."


"Yah... I know this is tough little Timmy, let me try to help you understand."

Every year (ok... so really this is only the 3rd time, but still, it feels like forever), this is a really hard task for my 3rd graders. This year, I tried to be very purposeful with how I got students to think about what the difference is between showing and telling.

First, I tried to do a lot of storytelling. I would first say a telling sentence and then a showing sentence to get the ball rolling. We talked about the differences between the two. We noted sentence length, adjective use, verb choice, etc.

A few lightbulbs turned on after that. And so we continued with another way to bring this message home for those still sitting in the dark.

We went on a walk around the school. Nothing too special. But after every couple minutes, we stopped and jotted down our observations using only our senses. (I planned this in 5 minutes so literally, they just had a piece of paper divided into 5 columns and each one labeled with a sense. No fancy fonts, so cute borders... but it worked beautifully.)

And yes, I did have to say this...

We talked about it before we left the classroom. The only thing we will be tasting is water from the water fountain. But that didn't stop a little one from trying to sneak a fist full of dirt into his mouth and then denying it with that said dirt still on his face.

The point is, this little nature walk really helped them to realize all the different ways to use senses to describe this event. When we got back to the room, we all wrote about the same event. And I already saw awesome leaps of improvement.

A few more students were stepping into the light. Now it was time to let this new knowledge shine!

In this final attempt to make it clear the difference between a telling sentence and a showing sentence, we talked about emotions and feelings. I got the inspiration from this pin (click to be taken to the original source).
And I was like,

"Hey. I think I could do this and have my kids create this." And so I did.

I made these little signs. They were blank. I modeled how to do one first. Then we tried some together. Then they worked in pairs to pick one of the signs and write down a few different ways we could show the emotion or feeling. For those struggling, I had the simple sentence frame My  (body part) (past tense verb). We also have been doing a lot of work with similes. So lots of those popped up. And although there are misspelled words, some incorrect verb tenses, and not all complete sentences- it was AMAZING to see their creative juices flowing. I liked doing it this way. I find the problem when I do a bulleted list, a lot of my students (mostly my ELs) just copy it down in their writing... which means they are not complete sentences. So we tried to focus a little on that in this lesson as well (and it was a good formative assessment to see who could create a complete sentence and who still struggles). Check out some of the work below... this was alllllll them. And my iPhone does not take the best photos so my apologizes now.

As soon as we were done with these, I attached them to some binder rings and hung them on our back-writing-curtain-focus-wall thingy and students instantly started using these in their own writing and as a source of inspiration. And the next day, they continued to use them. And they were so proud. I mean... their smiles beamed across their face as they stood as tall as a flag pole. Not too bad of a showing sentence if I do say so myself. ;)

So if you'd like to give it a try in your room, here are the mini-signs  I used in my room for you! Just click on them below to download them.



  1. Thank you for all these brilliant ideas! I love the idea of using the 5 senses, especially since we're studying matter (although I hope I don't catch anyone eating dirt). Thanks for the freebie, too!

  2. I love all of your ideas. This is definitely a hard concept to teach. I have made similar anchor charts, but I really like how you had the students write in their ideas. Thank you for the charts. I am going to give them a try.

    Fit to be Fourth

  3. We are working on personal narratives this week, and I anticipate this being a problem area for my fifth graders as well. Thanks for the mini charts! I think that I will have my five table groups each do two and make copies for every student so they can glue them into their writing INBs as a resource.

  4. Kelli, I absolutely LOVE this lesson!! I never would have thought to take students out for a nature walk... how powerful! Thank you so much for the free mini charts! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your students' writing in the photographs! They did a great job (Who knew a dragon was so sleepy! :) )! I can tell you had discussed similes and metaphors lately! Thanks for sharing!!


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