Show Don't Tell in Middle School: Elevating Narrative Writing
If you are an E.L.A. teacher, then you know what "Show Don't Tell" is. It's pretty much a core lesson in almost all writing workshops.
If you are new to teaching E.L.A., let me explain what showing and not telling is. First of all, this skill applies to narrative writing. It is a writing skill used to show elaboration and description. Novice writers tend to tell their readers what is happening in their stories. Essentially, these writers are nearly writing a list of the events...just telling us what happened. See an example below.
Showing is much more skilled. Writers who show include emotion, actions, thoughts, and imagery. This is not something you can teach in a day. It is a nuanced skill that takes lots of practice in different formats and not just in writing workshop. Check out one of my good showers not tellers below.
You are able to see the story; I tell my students it's as if you could close your eyes and write what you'd see in a movie version of your story.
So, how to teach this? Read on to find out more.
Start it in Reading Workshop
The #1 way to get students to write better is to get them reading...books, not just short stories. My students read nearly every day for 15 minutes when they come to my class. I also read aloud from mentor texts during my Reading Workshop lessons.
I always start my year off with realistic fiction reading units (click here and here to see those) and within those units, we do a lot with analyzing character emotions and actions and how they impact the story. I think this is a key prerequisite to showing and not telling. Internal external...deep stufy
This year, I started teaching a 7th grade section of E.L.A. and used Lucy Calkins' Investigating Characterization unit. Within this unit, there's lots of focus on author's craft and I really love using this as a build up to their first writing unit, realistic fiction.
Poetry is also an excellent way to dive into imagery and figurative language, which are all components of showing and not telling. My poetry unit (link) heavily focuses on this. Students analyze figurative language within poetry and discuss/explain what it means and what it does for the writing. You can read more about this unit here. They also do a fun spring activity which requires them to focus on figurative language to create poetry about spring things.
You should also be showing lots of good writing in regards to mood. Focusing on setting in stories helps students envision. I do a lot of work with this early on, before narrative writing. Read about that mini-unit here.
In regards to mood, I do have them do some mood drawings, too. Students find scenes with strong mood and draw out the scenes. If the scene is super detailed and filled with pictures, clearly that scene was showing not telling.
Really, reading and writing go hand-in-hand. When teaching reading you should also be focusing on the writing.
Lessons in Writing Workshop
During my narrative writing units (narrative continuations or personal narrative, fantasy fiction, and realistic fiction), I always use mentor texts. For example, I am doing personal narrative writing with my 6th graders and realistic fiction writing with my 7th graders right now. Since they follow similar patterns, I have students use story structure to plan their stories. Prior to that, though, they spend time using short story mentor texts to analyze story structure in those stories (I use short stories for this because it's too difficult to use a long novel with lots of problems, twists and turns).
Then, when it's time to write their own stories, I have them write a section at a time. For example, they will write their expositions first. Before they write, they will reread expositions in short stories we've read together. Within that reading, they highlight for specific things focusing on author's craft. So, they may highlight character thoughts, emotions, actions, etc. They may highlight lines that show the author is foreshadowing to later in the story. I do this for all sections of the story structure chart.
Another activity I do which is usually a separate lesson is a specific show don't tell activity. The first lesson majority of teachers do to begin thinking about showing not telling is getting the students to focus on the five senses. Let me tell you...this STILL needs review in middle school! So, I have them focus on an emotion and using the five senses to show that emotion.
They then transition describing emotions in specific topics. For example, they would describe anger, disappointment, shyness, etc. during an argument. This encourages them to elaborate in their own writing. By focusing on emotions in any topic, they are showing! They do a similar idea with focusing on thoughts and actions; using thoughts and actions encourage more description.
Writing mood comes into play here, too. I like to have them pick a setting and write a scene in that setting with different moods. They MUST have a lesson on mood before this; maybe multiple because this is tricky. Students have a hard time distinguishing mood from character feelings.
You can get all these activities by clicking the picture below!
I also like to get them to play some charades! I will have them act out an emotion without speaking and have their fellow students write what they see. They focus on body language and physical movements. Putting this into writing is a great way to show not tell.
Students love, like really love using dialogue. How many stories have you read written by students that are riddled with it? Dialogue is great, but too much is not showing what is happening.
I spend a lot of time on tagging dialogue. You can read about it more here, but the general concept is students must include all of the above from my show don't tell activities in dialogue tags. What are dialogue tags? Simply, it's when you write "Susie said". By this point, I encourage them to get away from just saying who said what, but to rather focus on what the character is doing, thinking, or feeling, and putting that in the tags.
These are definitely standalone lessons but then can be applied to their writing. I like to do some comic work with them. Students write out dialogue with comics, then add different types of tags. For 6th grade, I usually go through this entire activity with them. Again, you can read more about that here.
With my 7th, since they had me last year, they already knew about tagging, so I had them practice with slides like these below. You can have these slides, too! Click here to get them for yourself.
After this, I always have them go back into their writing to apply the skill to their dialogue. It's actually always part of their revision checklists.
Also with writing, I do a lot of peer swapping. I will have them swap scenes and have partners try to draw out the scenes. If the partner doesn't know what to draw, then the writer was not showing.
Showing not telling takes LOTS of practice in a variety of ways. It is not a one day lesson. It takes a long time to get to mastery. I do find a lot has to do with imagination...my readers, my gamers, my television show watchers are good at this (the YouTubers, TikTokers, etc...not so much). This is a generalization, of course, and also just an observation.