Let’s do some detail work this week! I mean by that, let’s help your child to understand and recognize the important details in what they’re writing. We don’t want a long litany of “and then, and then, and then.” Neither do we want a terse, “he was tall.” Let’s take a look at several strategies. Most of them can be adapted to a variety of ages, or done as a game with the kids in a family joining in at their developmental level.
Details are the stuff that makes written material vivid for the reader. You can write about a generic boy or girl and you’ll have the equivalent of the bottom row of kids in the image above. You can add details and create the other kids in the image. Sometimes a writer wants to describe a character in enough detail to make that character stand out in one and only one way. Sometimes a writer just needs you to picture a boy–any boy–in your mind. In that case, there won’t be as many details.
Tell a kid to include details and, depending upon the age of the child you’ll get something like this: “We left the house at 9:07 am. We got to school at 9:15 am. At 10:05 we had a snack…” Yep. Those are details. You might also get something like this: “I put on my green sneakers with the yellow laces and then my red leggings and my long shirt with the stripes that go around my body. I tied my hair with a green bow and went downstairs to sit in the third chair from the middle at the kitchen table.” These are also details. Maybe too many details.
Before we worry about too few or too many details, let’s be sure the kids understand what makes a detail a detail.
Pre-K Crowd: Start with a stuffed animal. Say it’s a tiger or a monkey. Hold the stuffed animal and make noises like the animal. Act like the animal, too. Do this several times and have your child join in. When you think he/she has got the idea, hand an animal to your child and encourage him/her to act like the animal. Make a big deal when they get it. Then you act like an animal and ask your child to point to which animal you are being. Have another person, who was not there the entire time, come in and guess the animal. Your child doesn’t know it yet, but you’re picking the details that are important to that animal and using them to describe the animal. Once your child has the game clear, you can use pictures from a book or magazine. You can also use noises and motions to “be” a character in a book.
Grades K-1: Kids this age really get into this game. We call it “Guess.” Not a great name, but we are often meeting before 8 in the morning. A quick way to describe it to adults is that it is the reverse of 20 questions. You want the other player to guess what you’re describing in as few clues as possible. So for instance, your child can pick something and write five clues about it. If writing isn’t your child’s thing, he/she can draw a rough image of the thing and draw an arrow to five details. Then your child faces the other player or players and gives one clue at a time. The object is to have the other players guess your thing in the fewest clues. For instance, if your child has chosen a zebra, he/she might give stripes as the first clue. Black and white might be the next clue. Africa might be the next. Four legs. Sort of a horse might be another. For some reason, kids overwhelmingly choose to describe animals. And they truly love this game.
2nd Grade: This crowd can definitely write the clues. They can also write the name of the object at the top of the page and number the list. They can also start with the clue that is most likely to get the other kids to guess correctly, although they often are loathe to do that because they love to stand at the front of the crowd once they’re actually up there. They’re also ready for a bit of creative work that you start them on. Tell them they are going to write about a make believe kid named Harry. Tell them that they’ll know Harry when they see him … and they can add five details. They can’t use a kid they know–you’d be surprised how quickly that can go wrong! They can also describe a place if they prefer. They can say, “You’ll know my classroom when you get here because …
Grades 3-5: These kids are sure they know details, but they’re generally the ones who equate a detail with a timeline. They’re the perfect age for “you’ll know Harry when you see him.” That prompt catches their attention and sense of humor. It’s possible Harry will be wearing a paper cup on his head or have a hole in his sneaker. It doesn’t matter. The point is to give the details that go with Harry and make him memorable. Have them create three human characters with details, as well as two animal characters. We’ll use them in a story soon.