Bits and bobs

Descriptive writing and our senses.

Descriptions may be hard to deal with but they are enriching the writing so much that ignoring them is a crime against the reader’s perception and style. Cutting down on details will negatively affect not only the text perception but probably the final mark if it happens to be an exam writing.

As a common topic-starter let’s have a look (and a touch, a taste, a smell and a sound) at our senses and how well can we exploit them in English.

The visual image is the easiest one. Colours, shapes, sizes are the most straightforward means of describing objects. A bit more tricky with people, but it’s still ok as the unit called “Appearance” is included in each single course book for all levels. The worst part of missing character descriptions is that whatever is not given in the text the brain would obligingly do up and put into a more visual form with the support from imagination and visualising. You know this feeling when for the first hundred pages you imagine a young fair-hair man who turns out to be a man with a pitch-black beard and glasses (or whatever else but the total opposition of your imaginative character). Anyway, be logical and give all the main descriptions from the start, nothing much to say here.

Taste is also not the most difficult one as we daily practice this kind of descriptive writing in social nets and in our kitchen. How much do students regularly know? I’d say around ten words, including delicious, tasty and disgusting plus sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and, if you as a teacher are lucky enough, sour. Not very impressive, there are many more words to add up. Just think about sommeliers who manage to describe the taste of specific wine in so many details including notes and aftertaste.

If the taste-describing vocabulary of an average student seems to be scarce, don’t get disillusioned: there are three more categories on the way.

Touch. You close your eyes, you touch …it… what do you feel? Not surprisingly, many students jump back to shapes, add some notes on the temperature and how hard the object is. Plus a common note on “it’s nice” or “it’s not nice”.

Smell and sound will go together as the most mysterious categories even in the mother tongue. We are not used to describing sounds and smells in detail as in most cases it’s a feature of a fiction and not many of us are writing novels in spare time. This lack of ideas in the first language leads to a total block when a student during the lesson is pushed to describe something from all aspects.

Just do a common writing exercise: describe sounds you commonly hear at work or while cooking, what do you hear before falling asleep and in public transport. It’s amazing how many sounds we ignore! Another part of the practice is to describe a few aromas, pleasant (favourite perfume) or not (garbage bin); the result of this exercises will be not only in vocabulary improvement but in the new level of attention to details. Give it a try.


Unfortunately, no lists of words are able to jump into writing easily. Students have to learn words, figure out contexts and common collocations and there is no better source than a good old fiction book. Read and underline. Use colours for different senses and put new phrases into personally related examples.

If you follow this link  you’ll find a nice website for writer full of impressive sound descriptions and bright contexts. If you want more sources with picked quotations with descriptors, here you are for smells .

From my experience, the lessons on 5 senses are always successful. Just make a mind map with senses and words and let students feel everything. Play them audio tracks or recordings with different sounds, let them touch and smell objects with closed eyes, try together a few snacks. Learning languages is not only about words, it’s also about learning more about the world around us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.