Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay”

One of the staples of ESL textbooks and writing courses is the descriptive essay. I’m not honestly sure what one of this is: description is definitely an important mode of writing, but when would we describe anything in the form of an essay? Even worse, this assignment is often used as an excuse to drill features that are inappropriate for this type of writing (a description can’t have a thesis because it’s not making an argument!).

Descriptive-essay prompts often look like this:

  • Describe your house / home town / favorite place
  • Describe your best friend.
  • Describe a prized possession.
  • Describe your ideal teacher / lesson (come on, these are just invitations for flattery)
  • Describe a pet or animal in a zoo
  • Describe your hero
  • and here’s a list of 100 more if you’re not already bored

These are meaningless tasks. The reader is entirely uninterested in your hometown, your favorite zoo animal, or your prized key-ring collection. And students have little incentive to write about these topics, other than to complete the assignment, which itself is little more than a pretext to produce written text.

A genre-based approach invites us to think about where description is used in writing. In other words, description is an action we use to accomplish certain goals in a text. As I said in my last genre makeover on argumentative writing, not all genres need to exist outside the classroom, but description is just so easy to embed in an authentic genre, so why not? Here are some examples:

  • Visit and write a review of a local restaurant or coffee shop, as if for a student newspaper or online review (my colleague Monica Farling and I described this assignment, which Monica designed, in a 2017 TESOL Journal article). The scope for teaching rich descriptive language is unlimited, and the assignment can easily be adapted for any level of language proficiency. And it’s a lot of fun!
  • Write a product review for an online shopping or auction site. You can even have students bid on the items and see who gets the best deal! A variation of this is to invent and promote a niche or useless product (read the Amazon banana peeler or Bic “Cristal for Her” pen reviews first!). We have a version of this assignment in Inside Writing book 2.
  • Describe a house for a realtor’s listing or a featured article in a magazine of newspaper (I used a version of this task as the prompt for the data in my PhD dissertation!).
  • Bring in a bag of stones, apples, potatoes, pumpkins, or other similar-yet-discernible objects. Each student takes an item and has to write the most detailed description possible. The next day, the descriptions are distributed to other students, who must identify the correct object (hat tip to Monica again for this idea).
  • Write a description of a piece of art (at a museum or viewed online) for an exhibition catalogue.
  • Write a “missing” poster for a pet (or your best friend! — too dark?) or a description of an object for a lost-and-found office (e.g., a car seat mislaid by British Airways at Berlin’s Tegel airport … ripped from the headlines!)
  • Write a description of an object for valuation at the Antique’s Roadshow.
  • Describe your hometown/region/school/university for a tourism brochure/website.
  • Write a Craigslist posting for your school.

If you keep some principles in mind, it isn’t hard to find a meaningful writing task:

  • Situate the writing: give it a context, reader, and purpose (that is, a genre)
  • Discuss with your students how description works in the genre
  • Give realistic examples: if you can’t find a suitable model, write one. In fact, write two — students should read and analyze multiple examples of each genre to see that it has variations not rigid formulae. If you want students to write a 200-word description, don’t give them 1,000-word models!
  • Find target language that is functional in the genre — e.g. adjectives and relative clauses enhance the depth of descriptions. Take a look at Inside Writing for more examples.

Stay tuned for more genre makeovers, and please leave a comment with your ideas for descriptive writing assignments or essay assignments you’d like to make over!

For more ideas of genre-based assignments, check out our new volume, Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay from the University of Michigan Press.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

2 thoughts on “Genre Makeover: The Descriptive “Essay””

  1. Nice discussion, O Nigel!! I have students describe a room (one paragraph) as practice before they go out and observe the activity in a restaurant – they have to then describe the restaurant as well as report on the behavior of customers. On the flip side of describing a favorite room, they have to create an imaginary room, but describe such that readers can visualize it, not just enjoy the fantasy. I see your point – the task could have a greater relationship to reality – they could try to lure a new roommate to their wonderful dorm room, I suppose…

    1. Thanks, O’Andy! I guess the question would be why a reader would want to visualize your students’ dorm rooms (I’m fairly sure I do not want this insight into my students’ private lives!). I like the idea of a posting for a new roommate (although “luring” people in might not exactly be the message your university wants to send ..!)

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