Teach homeschool teens to describe a place with vivid vocabulary

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Teaching Homeschool Writing

“Descriptive writing is an art form. It’s painting a word picture so that the reader ‘sees’ exactly what you are describing.”

~Brenda Covert

What’s the big deal about writing descriptively? For one thing, it’s much more than page-filling fluff. Descriptive writing imprints images into the reader’s mind, making you feel as though you’re “right there.” Its all about engaging the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to transport the reader and stir emotion.

By choosing vivid details and colorful words, good writers bring objects, people, places, and events to life. Instead of merely telling you what they see, they use their words to show you.

Writers use this powerful method to make their pieces memorable—even brilliant—rather than dry and boring. In many ways, description is the most important kind of writing you can teach your children. Why? Because it supports other reasons for writing such as storytelling, informative reports, or persuasion.

By choosing vivid details to describe a place, your teens will bring life and emotion to their writing.

Even if your child never aspires to write stories or poetry, description is a wonderful skill to develop. Without it, all other writing falls flat.

1. What It Means to Describe a Place

Vivid writing is especially important when your middle or high schooler needs to describe a place — whether describing a vista for a travel guide or fleshing out a scene in a short story.

Master storyteller Charles Dickens was gifted at using description to create a mood.

It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.  ~Charles Dickens, Hard Times

But students don’t have to be a Dickens to add color, depth, and interest to their writing. Here, a 14-year-old draws on all five senses to describe a place and create a mood.

Damp and salty, a chilly breeze blows in across the swells, bringing with it the pungent smells of seaweed and fish and making me pull my jacket a little closer. Sea spray transforms into fiery prisms as the waves splash against the shore, catch the last golden rays of sun, and toss them up like liquid crystals.

With a few tips and tools, homeschool tweens and teens can effectively describe a place too.

A Desert Example

Suppose they’re planning to write about a desert. They’ll need to describe basic desert features, of course: sand, rock, hills, and dunes. But deserts aren’t all alike, so their word choices will need to reflect the kind of desert they want to write about.

Describe a Place | Teaching Teens to Write with Vivid Vocabulary

For example, if they choose a desert in the southwestern United States, they’ll probably describe plants such as sagebrush, Joshua trees, yuccas, or saguaro cacti.

But if they’re writing about an oasis in the Sahara Desert, where vegetation is much different, they’d instead describe date palms, oleanders, acacia trees, succulents, and desert grasses. Their description of either desert scene will spring to life when they tell about these places using rich and appropriate details.

2. Where to Find Vocabulary to Describe a Place

How can you help your homeschoolers study a subject and choose strong words that make their writing sparkle? Whether they decide to write about a desert, city, rain forest, or pond, these ideas will help students find words that form the foundation of their descriptive piece, narrative story, or report.

Search Engine: A Homeschooler’s Best Friend

Search engines such as Google make a great resources for inspiration. In addition to collecting general terms about the location’s flora and fauna (the desert, for example), teens can find concrete, specific nouns and adjectives that add color to their writing. Suggest they begin their search by looking up terms like these:

  • desert landscape
  • desert features
  • desert climate
  • desert plants
  • desert animals
  • desert description

What if your teen wants to describe a city instead of a desert? City words are trickier to find, and they may have to hunt more. Try some of these search terms:

  • describe city sights
  • describe Chicago, describe Pittsburgh, etc.
  • “describe downtown” (use quotes)

Other Sources for Descriptive Vocabulary

While search engines can lead students to a wealth of information, don’t discount the value of print media such as magazines and books. Also consider digital media such as TV documentaries or YouTube videos about the subject.

When describing a place, visit in person, if possible. But if not, can you explore a spot with similar features? Many children are visual and tactile learners. If they want to describe what a sidewalk looks like, send them outside to explore the sidewalk on your street. It will help them describe the texture, color, and appearance of a city sidewalk, even if you live in a suburb.

3. Expanding Descriptive Vocabulary

As your teens search the Internet, ask them to keep an eye out for adjectives that describe desert or city features (or whatever place they want to write about). Encourage them to come up with words on their own, but also to watch for words they meet in articles or photo captions.

When kids don’t understand some of the words, pull out the dictionary and make it a teaching moment! And show them how to use a thesaurus (we love The Synonym Finder) to find other words that say the same thing. A focused thesaurus, such as the ones below, will also help their vocabularies grow.

The Rural Setting Thesaurus gives teens the inspiration to effectively write about nature, home, and school settings.

The Urban Setting Thesaurus helps them draw on all five senses and jogs their memory to help them create believable scenes in city spaces.

4. Descriptive Examples

Some Desert Adjectives

Desert: harsh, dry, arid, sparse, severe, hot
Rock: sharp, rough, jagged, angular
Grasses: windblown, bent, dry, pale green, brown
Sand: coarse, fine, glittering, shifting, rippling, sifting, white, golden
Sky: pale, intense, cloudless, azure, purple, crimson
Cactus: tall, short, squatty, spiny, prickly, thorny, bulbous
Date palm: tall, bent, leathery (leaves), frayed (leaves)

Some City Adjectives

City: active, bustling, noisy, busy, clean, dirty, windy
Traffic: loud, congested, snarled
Buildings: old, shabby, rundown, crumbling,  modern, futuristic, sleek, towering, squat
Buildings (walls): brick, stone, marble, glass, steel, graffiti-covered
Monuments, statues: stone, copper, carved, ancient, moss-covered, faded, green, bronze
Sidewalk: concrete, cement, slick, cracked, tidy, littered, swept
Paint: fresh, weathered, peeling
Signs: neon, weathered, worn, bright, welcoming, flashing
Buses, cars, taxis: belching, crawling, speeding, honking, waiting, screeching
People: hurried, bundled, smiling, frowning, eager, rushed

Use these suggestions to encourage teens to come up with ideas to describe a place of their own. You’ll both discover that hunting for words can become a favorite prewriting game! And as your kids dabble more and more in descriptive writing, I’m confident their words will soon begin to “show” more and “tell” less.

Do you struggle with teaching and grading writing in your homeschool? Does your middle- or high schooler’s writing need a boost? Consider adding WriteShop to your curriculum choices for this school year! The first seven lessons of WriteShop I specifically teach descriptive writing.

This important skill is then practiced in the remaining informative and narrative writing lessons. In addition, WriteShop teaches—and offers practice in using—a wide array of sentence variations that enhance a student’s paper with fresh style and vigor. When combined with strong, dynamic word choices, sentence variations give dull writing new life.

WriteShop Primary C Set (PRINT)

For younger children, WriteShop Primary introduces K-3rd graders to activities that widen their writing vocabulary. Book C contains three  specific descriptive writing lessons. WriteShop Junior for grades 3-6 also provides many opportunities for students to incorporate description.

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  1. anishka

    and , i really need some ideas on how to describe any place i want to ,but as i chose horror, maybe you could help me out ?

    • Kim Kautzer

      Hi, Anishka! My hope through this article is to inspire you to take the ideas and run with them, doing your own research for the place you want to describe. “Horror” isn’t a place; it’s a genre. So first, choose a setting to focus on. Will the story take place in an old mansion on a cliff? An abandoned building in the city? A graveyard? That’s the place to tell about!

  2. lakshitha


  3. lakshitha

    Hi Kim ! i have to write abuot the visit to a shopping mall
    can you help me in this by giving some ideas.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Lakshitha: Learning to describe means paying attention to details. Picture yourself at the shopping mall (or visit in person and take notes about what you observe). Think about what the mall looks like, smells like, feels like. Is it new and upscale? Rundown and tired? Is it well lit? Noisy? Any music playing? Ask yourself questions like these. Look at both the big picture and the subtlest of details so that you can describe the color scheme, building materials, aromas from food, colorful displays, etc. Best of luck to you!

  4. Zebiniso

    I’m learning English as a second language if I have any mistakes I’m sorry…

    • Kim Kautzer

      Glad you found this article helpful, Zebiniso!

  5. Zebiniso

    Hi Kim it was useful for me to read your article, comments and advices. Until now I have a difficulty but I got useful information for me. Thank you

  6. Anonymous

    Hello, I would like to describe a special place, but I am out of adjectives .please help me out. I choose my grandparents house as my special place

    • Kim Kautzer

      Part of learning to describe is to pay attention to the smallest details. It’s just not the same if someone provides the answers for you! Plus, you’re the best person to choose the adjectives, since you know what your grandparents’ home looks like, smells like, feels like. If the house is white, that’s not very descriptive. Is it white stucco? Brick? Wood? Is it freshly painted or weathered? Fresh looking or rundown? Ask yourself questions. Look at the big picture and notice the smallest things. Go deep with detail to create a vivid picture. You can do this!

  7. Matthew Hosking

    This information is not only useful for children, but also other forms of writing such as blogging. I’ve been able to pick up a couple of ideas for a blog I’ve started about local communities

    • Kim Kautzer

      That’s fantastic, Matthew! I’m so glad you found these tips helpful for adding description to your blog.

  8. Shiva Bagale

    Today must be a special day as I have come to a place where I shall learn for myself a lot and for helping my students learn better English.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Thanks for visiting, Shiva!

  9. Mrs. Baptista

    Hello, I really liked your article Kim but is it possible for you to add some more descriptive writing. You did a wonderful job writing the ones about the desert and the city but I would like more about caves and things like this.

    I am now studying Beowulf with my class and they need to write the scene where Grendel’s mother appears and I will tell them they need a lot of descriptive writing but I want to write an example one and I really can’t think of any descriptive words for my story. could you please recommend me some?

    Thank you.

    • Kim Kautzer

      The article is actually less about how to describe a city or desert and MORE about helping students find the answers for themselves. Rather than feeding exact words to them, there’s greater value in teaching them how to brainstorm for ideas and use resources to dig deeper. For instance, the article suggests search terms such as “DESERT landscape” and “DESERT animals,” but you would simply substitute “CAVE” for “DESERT” in each of the examples that are listed.

      Before having your students do outside research, take advantage of what they already know about a topic—they’re more resourceful than we give them credit for! As a class, brainstorm to see what descriptive words and phrases they can come up with on their own. Ask: “What are some features of a cave?” “What’s the climate like inside a cave?” “What plants and animals might you find in a cave?” As they share ideas around the room, write them on the board. To corral their answers, it can help to use a mindmapping tool.

      I think you and your class will all enjoy this exercise (which you can also have them do in small groups).

      • Kim Kautzer

        Oh, and may I suggest skimming the article once more for other tips you may have missed? Then invite students use Google or library books and other resources about caves to find more info.

        And remember to introduce them to the thesaurus so they understand how to look up concrete synonyms for many of their words—especially ones that are vague or dull. This will expand their description even further! The more you teach them to think and investigate on their own, the better you’ll prepare them for university and beyond.

      • Mrs. Baptista

        thank you, kim

  10. Yashika

    Hey Kim! I have a problem that whenever I try to write short compostions I end up writing a big one. So can you please give me some tips or tricks on how to write a short composition containing all the important elements of the composition.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Great question, Yashika! In A River Runs Through It, the main character, Norman, learns to write by taking his essays to his father, who always tells him, “Good. Now make it half as long.”

      Conciseness is a worthy goal. When I’m invited to write an article for a magazine, I might be given a 1200-word limit. If I write 1700 words, they won’t accept my article. I have to keep chopping out words, phrases, and sometimes entire paragraphs until I finally reach 1200. The process can be painful, especially if those words were written with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears! Every word we write seems important to us, doesn’t it? But having a word limit is an excellent practice in writing concisely; it takes discipline to write within specific parameters, and it takes a good deal of bravery to remove words we’ve chosen with such care and feel attached to.

      So start with a word, paragraph, or page limit. For example, challenge yourself to describe an object or person using one paragraph that’s no longer than 10 sentences. Or try Norman’s exercise, taking something you have already written and cutting it by half.

      It helps to ask yourself questions like these … and then be ruthless with your editing pencil!

      • Do I really need all these words here?
      • Can I replace several weak or dull words with one stronger one?
      • Have I repeated myself? If so, which parts can I remove?
      • Is my writing too wordy or flowery?
  11. sam

    Hi my name is sam and i really loved your website.i am currently in 10th and my vocabulary has definitely improved after visting this page thank you

  12. Nor ain syuhada

    Hello kim. I would like to ask you about how I want to describe a smell in class. I doesnt have any idea right now.. can you help me?

    • Daran

      If you are looking for actual smells, you could think in terms of the things held in an elementary classroom. Things like glue, construction paper, and crayons have a definite smell. Many classrooms have class pets which certainly have an odor. You could also mention the smell coming in from the cafeteria and parking lot, as well as from the grass if it is freshly mowed or the athletic fields if they have been tended recently. Some teachers wear a particular fragrance and it fills the room after so long. Also, hand sanitizer and other cleaning products have a distinct smell in the classroom now as well.

      • Kim Kautzer

        Daran! What fantastic ideas for describing a classroom through its distinctive smells! Thank you for sharing these.

  13. Imran

    It’s wonderful to visit your website. I’m an English teacher and I often struggle when teaching descriptions to my students.I have learnt a lot from you Kim.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Thank you, Imran! It makes me happy to know you’re getting some good tips to share with your students. Hope you visit again soon!

  14. maida

    Hi! Actually this activity can be made even more interesting when students are asked to exchange their descriptive writings and draw what they get to read. They can also be asked to highlight all those words which they have been able to draw. Students can then share their experiences in discussions. If they will have any ambiguity in drawing then they will be able to relate it to their writing as well.

    • Kim Kautzer

      That’s a great idea, Maida! We’ve also found this to be a practical exercise when students describing a pet or a person. It really helps them learn to focus on concrete, tangible description. Thanks for weighing in!

  15. yusra

    it really helped and i love it. Thanks alot.

  16. Laura

    Very good post. Thank you, Kim.

    • Kim Kautzer

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Laura! Thanks for commenting.

  17. Mike Kussmaul

    Hi Kim. One of the things I like to do with my students is have them describe their favorite room in their house. I tell them to describe what they would see as they walk in the door and move to the left, going around the perimeter of the room first and then to the middle of the room. They have to use shapes, colors, etc. so that everyone can “see” the room in their minds. After they have completed this task, I hand them a sheet of paper and I ask them to draw their room. You would not believe how engrossed they are in actually drawing something. Once they have completed these 2 things, I put them in pairs and they have to share what they’ve done with a partner. While they are sharing, I am walking around the classroom listening to what they have to say. Eventually I will choose 2-3 pairs to come to the front of the room and share with the entire class. It is a lot of fun and the students really enjoy it.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Mike: What a fantastic way to get kids excited about thinking—and writing—descriptively. I’m so glad you shared this activity with us!


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