Teaching Activities for Diction: Using Connotation and Denotation to Improve Word Choice & Convey the Proper Tone

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After teaching students how to create lively characters, convert telling sentences into showing ones, and how to write dialogue, I felt good about myself… until I read their next assignment and realized they didn’t understand the difference between connotation and denotation. Plagued with inconsistent diction, my students' writing prompted me to scourge my skin with a curling iron I’d found outside in the dumpster. Right as the soothing odor of burnt skin wafted into my nostrils, a healing balm entered my thoughts. I unplugged the curling iron, called my wife, and told her I’d be home late.

I had work to do. I had to find a better way of teaching connotation and denotation. I needed better teaching activities for diction. Here’s what I came up with:

Getting Started

This is one of my favorite teaching activities for diction. It focuses on students understanding connotation, denotation, and the difference between the two.

  • Divide students into groups of 3-4 and give them one of the following lists of words.
    • student, apprentice, disciple, junior, learner, novice, scholar, undergraduate
    • skinny, bony, angular, emaciated, gaunt, malnourished, scrawny, slender, thin, anorexic
    • run, amble, bound, dart, dash, gallop, lope, scamper, sprint
    • vacation, break, fiesta, furlough, holiday, intermission, layoff, recess, respite, sabbatical
    • busy, active, diligent, employed, occupied, persevering, unavailable, employed
    • fear, dread, apprehension, anxiety, panic, terror
    • fat, obese, chubby, stout, plump, stocky
    • friend, companion, buddy, acquaintance, colleague, playmate
  • Have groups identify each word as positive, negative, or neutral. Keep in mind that most words can be either, depending on the context.
  • Have each group choose 3-4 words from their list and demonstrate their meanings with a drawing or a short skit.
  • Be sure to have each group say the word and explain its meaning.
  • Have the class explain the difference between the word’s connotation and its denotation (dictionaries may be necessary)

Diction in Revision

  • Write the following definitions on the board:
    • “connotation: the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning.”
    • “diction: style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words. Diction includes language, figurative language, and tone.”
  • Instruct students to read their rough drafts with thesaurus nearby.
  • Instruct students to look for words that could be replaced with strongly connotative words that would better convey tone in their writing. Popular candidates for replacements include good, bad, really, neat, etc.
  • Instruct students to circle, underline, or highlight words they intend to replace and write the replacement word above it.
  • Have students share passages with changed words. This paragraph writing exercise will motivate students to do their best.

TIP: For some reason, writing teachers from elementary school to high school have emphasized the need to find synonyms for said when writing dialogue. In reality, said is all that’s needed. Well written dialogue needs no synonym for said. Those who choose to litter their narrative with synonyms are guilty of lazy writing, at least that’s what award winning author, and personal friend of mine, David Winkler said after I spent a day and a half teaching synonyms for said.

*This lesson has been adapted from Susan Geye’s Mini Lessons for Revision, 1997.

This post is part of the series: Style: It’s What Quality Writers Possess

Neophyte writers assume style comes naturally. That’s why they have none. Style occurs no more naturally in writing than it does in fashion or music. It’s a deliberate creation of the stylist combined with serendipitous discovery while engaged in the creative process. It can be taught.

  1. Lesson Plan to Create Characters that Come to Life
  2. Lesson Plan: Using Imagery
  3. A Show Don’t Tell Lesson When Writing
  4. Lesson Plan: Using Connotation to Improve Word Choice
  5. Lesson Plan: Using Sentence Structure to Improve Writing Style
  6. Lesson Plans: Using Sentence Structure Effectively