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Show Me!

“Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.”

—Mark Twain

Be more specific. Give me an example. Show, don’t tell. How often does a writing teacher write or state these words during the school year? Too many times to count, right? We’ve heard of teachers who have had special stamps made because they’ve become so tired of writing “Give me an example” on student papers. The problem is, of course, that students too often state general idea after general idea in their writing without incorporating specific examples to support their generalizations.

So how should this problem be approached? It’s obvious that simply telling students to add more examples isn’t effective. Even showing them how professional writers develop their ideas isn’t enough (although this does help). Students learn to add substance and depth to their writing through regular practice.

Here’s one method that has worked for many teachers and students. At the beginning of class (15 minutes), have students develop general ideas (My locker is messy) into brief paragraphs or essays that show rather than tell.


Day 1

Write a general idea on the board. Then have students volunteer specific details that give the idea some life. List these ideas on the board. Next, develop a brief paragraph that incorporates some of these details. (Make no mention of the original sentence in your paragraph.) Discuss the results. Also, consider discussing the sample idea and paragraph below.

Day 2

Have students work on their first general idea to specific paragraph in class. (See ideas below.) Upon completion of their writing, have pairs of students share their results. Then ask for volunteers to share their writing with the class. Make copies of strong showing writing for future class discussions.

Day 3

Proceed by having students develop showing paragraphs on one day and discussing the results at the beginning of the next class period. Continue in this fashion for a month, if possible.

Sample General Ideas

  • The movie was incredible.
  • Baby-sitting can be a real adventure.
  • The heat started to get to us.
  • It was the best Friday ever.
  • My bedroom is messy.
  • I’ve never seen a place like that before.

Sample Idea and Paragraph


My baby sister was the picture of health.

Showing Paragraph

Josie flitted from one thing to another, as if everything in the kitchen was there for her amusement. She had already left a trail of pots, pans, bananas, and crackers behind her. Flashing Mom a bright-eyed smile, she reached her dimpled hands toward her juice cup. The juice dribbled down her chin as she drank. After plunking the half-empty cup on the counter, she marched around the kitchen table, singing, “Mary had a little lamb.” A bark from the backyard suddenly caught her attention, and she ran for the screen door on eager, little legs.


Have your students reserve a section in their notebooks or create a computer file for their writing. Give students some type of performance score for each paragraph, and occasionally provide personal comments. At the end of the month, have students develop one of their initial writings into a more complete finished product.


For additional work in this area, refer to our “Show or Tell” infographic. Also see Daily Language Workouts for a series of beginning-of-the-class writing activities.

Teacher Support:

Click to find out more about this resource.

K-12 Writing:

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.