What are powerful verbs?

Powerful verbs
Using powerful, descriptive verbs can make a big difference to your child's writing. We explain what parents need to know about powerful verbs (and ordinary verbs!) when helping with primary-school homework.

What is a verb?

A verb is a doing word. A verb expresses a physical action, a mental action or a state of being.

For example:

Katy juggled with five apples.
The man daydreams in the park.
I am happy at school.

Verb tenses in writing

Verbs change according to the tense of a sentence (whether the events described occurred in the past, are happening in the present or will take place in the future):

PAST TENSE:  I jogged to the supermarket.
PRESENT TENSE: I jog to the supermarket. OR I am jogging to the supermarket. (Present continuous)
FUTURE TENSE: I will jog to the supermarket.

Children need to be encouraged to use the correct verb tenses when writing different texts.

When writing a fiction text, they need to make sure that their verbs are consistently in the past or consistently in the present.

When writing instructions, an information text, a report or an explanation, the tense usually needs to be in the present.

Recounts, autobiographies and biographies are usually written in the past.

Journalistic writing, persuasive writing and argument texts can be a mixture of tenses.

Teachers do not usually explicitly teach children how to make verbs agree with subjects or how to change them to show past, present or future tense. Children are usually expected to pick this up through listening, speaking and reading. Verb tenses are usually corrected by teachers in the drafting and re-drafting process of a child's writing.

Powerful verbs in primary school

At primary school, teachers will persuade and encourage children, as much as possible, to use powerful verbs rather than ordinary verbs. For example:

Ordinary verb

Powerful verbs

said whispered, mentioned, whined, shouted, cried, exclaimed
walked shuffled, meandered, stomped, marched, tiptoed, sashayed

Teachers will encourage children to use powerful verbs in a number of ways:

  • A section of the classroom display where really good powerful verbs are 'gathered' by children for future use.
  • Giving children word banks of powerful verbs on a piece of paper, to refer to when they are writing.
  • Modelling the use of powerful verbs when writing. For example, a teacher might start to write a sentence on the board: 'The wicked wizard.... ' The class might then be told that the wizard is going into a witch's cave and is very angry with her. What powerful verb would be good to use in this situation to describe the wizard's movements? Examples might be: raged, stamped or rushed.
  • Underlining 'boring' verbs in a child's writing and encouraging them to think about a better, more powerful verb to put in its place.