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How to Teach Connotation vs. Denotation (And Why it’s a Vital Lesson)

    how to teach connotation vs denotation

    Wondering how to teach connotation vs. denotation? You’ve come to the right place! Understanding the difference and use of each helps students become better readers and writers, so let’s dive in!

    As ELA teachers, we’re constantly trying to help our students become stronger readers and writers. One way to teach that is by studying words. And, no, I don’t mean teaching new vocabulary lists. While traditional vocabulary instruction typically focuses on a particular definition, words hold more power than their literal meaning. That, my friend, is where connotation vs. denotation comes into play.

    If we want students to understand and analyze the meaning and impact of words, we must first teach the difference between connotation and denotation. So, what is the difference? And why is it essential that students understand connotation vs. denotation? Let’s dive in!

    What is Denotation?

    In the simplest terms, denotation is the literal meaning of a word. If you were to look up a word in the dictionary, you would find its definition—or denotative meaning. Since it’s a literal meaning, it’s not impacted by emotions. The denotation of a word remains the same regardless of personal experience, feelings, or social and cultural implications.

    Teaching Denotation

    The definition of denotation is relatively straightforward. However, I like to rely on my good friend alliteration to ensure students remember what it means.

    Denotation = Dictionary Definition

    Denotation starts with the letter D. Luckily, so does the word dictionary, which is where you would find the literal meaning of a word. I’ve found this little association trick can help students remember the meaning of denotation and avoid confusing it with a similar-sounding word: connotation.

    What is Connotation?

    While denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word, connotation speaks to the figurative or

    implied meaning of a word. The implications come from the feelings, emotions, thoughts, ideas, and social and cultural implications a word brings to mind.

    These links between words and their figurative meaning can be conscious or subconscious, making it all the more complex. However, through explicit teaching and engaging activities, students can learn to identify connotative meaning, analyze an author’s word choice, and understand the words’ overall impact on the text.

    Teaching Connotation

    Understanding connotation is the key to effective writing. So, how do we get students to understand the basics of connotation?

    If you’re looking for immediate student buy-in, start with swear words. (Hear me out.) Ask students what makes swear words bad. Also, ask why some words are considered swears or taboo in some places yet more acceptable in others. Through this conversation, students realize swears are such simply because we as a society determine them to be.  While I clarify that I’m not inviting students to use swear words in class, they love how edgy it feels talking about the concept.

    If you know your students can’t handle that edgy approach (or are worried about angry parent calls), you can use one of my other favorite and highly effective approaches. Start by writing the words house and home on the board. Then, ask students what the words have in common and how they differ. For example, a house is more of a physical structure where someone lives. On the other hand, the word home brings up the idea of family and feelings of comfort and love.

    Three Types of Connotation

    Connotation can be perceived as positive, negative, or neutral, depending on how the word is used:

    • Positive: These are feel-good words. The feelings, emotions, and ideas associated with a particular word are used to create a positive response in the reader.
    • Negative: These words are often linked with negative emotions or ideas. Therefore, the feelings, emotions, and ideas associated with a particular word are used to create a negative response in the reader.
    • Neutral: Some words aren’t very emotionally charged. Other times, neutral words can take on either negative or positive connotative meanings depending on the reader’s perspective and experiences or the context in which the author uses it in.

    Once students understand these differences, they can think more deeply about word choice in literature or even their own writing.

    Why Teach Connotation and Denotation

    Taking time to teach connotation and denotation explicitly helps students become better readers and writers. Understanding connotation and denotation will help students with essential reading skills such as unpacking figurative language, making inferences, analyzing metaphors and symbolism, and recognizing tone and mood. As they master identifying these elements in literature, they can showcase these skills in their own writing.

    As for when to teach connotation and denotation? A lesson on connotation vs. denotation works well on its own or before reading a text rich with figurative language. However, it is also the perfect complementary lesson when teaching rhetoric and percussion.

    Activities for Teaching Connotation vs. Denotation

    While denotation is more direct, getting students comfortable with connotation can be a challenge, thanks to its subjective nature. With the right activities, students can clearly understand the difference between connotation and denotation. Then, they can begin analyzing and utilizing connotation to unlock new levels of reading comprehension, analysis, and writing.

    The following connotation vs. denotation activities are as effective as they are engaging:

    1. The Sorting Game

    This activity is a simple yet highly effective way to get students to practice identifying positive, negative, and neutral connotative meanings. Simply throw out pairs of words and have students classify each word as having a neutral, positive, or negative connotation. The only catch is that students have to justify their classification. You can keep track of their classifications using a simple chart on the board.

     Here are some word pairings to help you get started: 

    • Visitor, guest, intruder
    • Decrepit, old, vintage
    • Yell, exclaim, shriek
    • Chilly, cold, refreshing
    • Tasty, delicious, scrumptious
    • Timid, shy, quiet
    • Annoy, irritate, antagonize
    • Skinny, thin, scrawny
    • Smell, fragrance, odor
    • Weed, plant, flower
    1. Would You Rather

    This fun activity is similar to the sorting activity above. Students will be highly engaged as they practice explaining the connotative meaning of various words, including the emotions and ideas tied to each. However, unlike The Sorting Game, Would You Rather puts the students at the forefront of the conversation. To start, consider a variety of character traits. Pair each characteristic up with a similar yet slightly different one. Go around asking students if they would rather be called one word or the other, explaining their reasoning.

    Here are some trait pairs to help you get started:

    • Assertive vs. bossy
    • Confident vs. cocky
    • Nerdy vs. intelligent
    • Timid vs. shy
    • Clever vs. bright
    • Out-going vs. obnoxious
    • Friendly vs. talkative
    • Competitive vs. aggressive
    • Driven vs. relentless
    1. Shades of Meaning

    As colors come in a variety of shades, words have various shades of meanings. These shades of meaning represent connotation. Yet, when students are young, they are taught that synonyms refer to different words that share the same meaning. However, this activity helps students recognize slight differences in these meanings that are worth considering.

    To start, choose a relatively neutral word, like “smart,” and have students think of as many synonyms as possible. Next, draw a horizontal line on the whiteboard. Mark the middle of the line and label it with the neutral term. Label the left-most end of the line “Most Negative” and the right-most end “Most Positive.” From there, have students work together to determine where each synonym belongs in relation to one another on the line.

    Teacher tip: I recommend having students write the synonyms on sticky notes so they can easily be moved around as they discuss the various words and their meanings.

    1. Connotations in the Real World

    This is a great activity to get students thinking about how word choice and connotation can reflect an author’s perspective or opinion on a topic. Have students read an informative article or news story, paying close attention to the author’s diction. Have students circle any words that stand out to them as having strong connotative meaning.

    After reading, have students share their observations. See if students can identify the author’s tone and opinion on the topic at hand. This activity is a perfect opportunity to discuss the difference between subjective and objective journalism.

    1. Connotation and Creative Writing Challenge

    This activity helps drive home the idea that words—and the feelings and ideas we associate with them—have the power to change the mood of a paragraph. In this creative writing challenge, give students a setting and basic plot point. For example, You walk into school, and no one is there. Then, have students write for five to ten minutes, carefully selecting their words to help create a certain tone.

    Once time is up, have students share their work with the class. As students read, have their peers pay attention to the word choice and connotation. At the end, students can guess the writer’s intended tone for the story. 

    Ready to put students’ skills to the test? I recommend starting with short stories. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe are a great place to start if you want students to analyze connotation and its impact on elements such as tone, symbolism, and theme of a text. Another favorite to work with is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

    A Final Word on Connotation vs. Denotation

     One of the things I love most about teaching connotation and denotation is that there are tons of engaging ways to approach the subject. The best part is that most of the lessons and activities require little planning.

    No matter how you plan to incorporate connotation and denotation into your curriculum, I hope you found this post informative and inspiring. If you have any ideas or activities to add to the list, please share them in a comment below.

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