Connotation and Denotation Lesson Plan Using Baby Names

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Associate the Meaning

Students often confuse denotation and connotation, not distinguishing that denotation is the literal, dictionary definition of a word, while its counterpart, connotation is a term that refers to the feelings or images a word evokes in the reader.

Just saying the definitions of both terms means absolutely nothing to students. As with any vocabulary term, students are better able to recall the term if they can make a personal association with it. Why not associate the meaning of denotation and connotation with a word they will never forget: their own name!

The Name Game

All names have an origin, or denotation that was originally tied to the name. Baby books are excellent resources to find a names origin, but the baby book The Baby Name Survey Book by Bruce Lansky, also includes the common “impressions” names make on people. Each name in the book includes the denotation, but also includes connotations many might associate with the name. Using this book can put a creative spin on a usually stale lesson. After obtaining a copy of the book, you can set up the lesson by following the steps below:

What’s the Meaning?

1. Discuss the meaning of denotation and connotation, either by presenting the definitions on a Power Point slide show, on the board, etc. Using the word “fat”, write the dictionary definition of fat on the board. “Fat - (adj.) having too much flabby tissue; corpulent; obese: a fat person." Next, discuss the feelings or associations the word “fat” creates in the students. Are the feelings positive, negative, or neutral? What other words can we use, that have the same denotation as “fat”, but don’t have the same negative connotations as the word “fat”?

What’s in a Name?

2. Students need to see that names have connotations, too. A great way to illustrate your point (especially with the middle or high school age bracket) is to ask the boys which girl they would like to take out on a date: Helga or Nikki? Most boys, if they are not being goofy, will say they prefer to take out Nikki. Then go into a discussion about the connotations associated with both names and read the descriptions from The Baby Name Survey Book to see if the class’s perceptions match those in the book. Next, ask the girls which boy they would like to date: Melvin or Brock? Again, girls will more than likely say “Brock” and as a class, discuss why Brock may be getting more dates than poor, unfortunate Melvin!


3. Finish up the lesson by reading the denotation (the origin) of volunteer’s names and sharing the connotation from the book. A word of caution: skim the connotation description before reading it out loud to the class, because a few of the connotations in the book are NOT positive. For example, the name “Crystal” in the book, is a name that is viewed by many as an obnoxious, bleach blond girl who buys her clothes at Walmart. I kid you not, that is more or less what the entry says, and luckily, I skimmed the description before sharing it with my class, and quite possibly, hurting the feelings of the Crystal that eagerly awaited the reading of her name’s connotation!

Bruce Lansky’s book is an excellent tool to teach denotation and connotation that puts a personal spin on the lesson. Students LOVE to talk about themselves and to learn more about their names. Throughout the year, randomly mention Helga, Nikki, Melvin or Brock, and students will automatically recall your lesson on denotation and connotation!