Teaching Diction Terms

Previously, I posted about a diction analysis assignment I use in class. While I designed it originally for my honors students, I have modified it to use with my mainstream students as well. I thought I would present an example of this here.

The first key idea that the kids have to understand is that a diction device is not the same as a literary term. A literary term is a broad category of Language Arts terms while a diction device is a subcategory of literary terms. A diction device focuses solely on word choice, the reasons why authors choose specific words and the subsequent effects (cacophony, euphony, connotation, denotation, dialect, colloquialism, simile, metaphor, symbol, etc.). Even subtle items can be included, especially when an author violates rules of grammar, syntax, or punctuation for effect. Literary terms such as climax, denouement, flashback, and so on focus on plot, not word choice; therefore, I have to focus the students on analyzing word choice (diction).

Let’s use a sentence from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an example of how to analyze diction:

“Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,” observed the Marquis, “will keep the dogs obedient to the whip…”

First, the kids have to know the context of the quotation. With this section of text, Charles Darnay has renounced his family’s name and money and left to live in England instead of France. He returns briefly to his uncle’s mansion in France and has a conversation with his uncle, the Marquis, and the disgust of one for the other is evident. The quotation above is the Marquis’ philosophy for keeping the commoners in line.

Secondly, the students need to know the definitions of every word in the selected sentence. My students asked about repression (the act of keeping someone/something under control), deference (respect), obedient (willing to comply or to give in to authority), and Marquis (a nobleman ranking below a duke and above an earl or count). I use Dictionary.com right in front of the students to look up the words, so they see me look up words to encourage them to do the same. Here, I wanted to make sure the kids understood the denotation (the primary or most popular definition of a word) of the words, which is a diction device.

Now we can analyze. Here’s the sentence again:

“Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,” observed the Marquis, “will keep the dogs obedient to the whip…”

We looked at the words in the example, and I asked the kids which words they thought felt positive or negative. Essentially, we’re discussing the words’ connotations (the secondary or associated meaning of words; the feelings or emotions attached to words). They said these words were negative feeling, and I included what they said:

  • Repression (makes people feel powerless & takes away choices)
  • dark (seems evil)
  • fear (can’t be comfortable if afraid)
  • slavery (no control & horrible life)
  • dogs (people are not dogs because it’s wrong & makes people seem unequal)
  • obedient (feels like there is no choice)
  • whip (painful if hit with it & creates fear)

These are the words the kids felt were positive and how the words made them feel:

  • philosophy (ideas and idea systems are good things)
  • deference (people should respect each other & “I want to be respected”)
  • friend (friends make us feel good & feel wanted and valued)

Since we noticed more words were negative than positive, the students felt that the statement is meant to be seen as “a bad thing.” This is where we decided to use connotation as the first diction device to write up. Here is what one of my mainstream students wrote about the word “slavery.” This is rough but a good start:

Connotation is the feeling a person gets from a word. In the sentence from A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens used the word “slavery” to show how the Marquis feels about the common people on his land. Because people see slavery as something scary and giving people no rights, this is a word we expect the Marquis to use. The effect of this word is to show the reader that the Marquis does not want to give his people equality. They have to be afraid and poor and always working. This gives the Marquis control.

This example uses connotation, which requires an understanding of denotation, but we also used the following terms as well with that single sentence:

  • alliteration (“dark deference” – creates an emphasis on the “evil respect,” as one student explained, “to make people afraid”)
  • metaphor (“dogs” – makes the Marquis look arrogant like’s “he’s better than the [common] people”)
  • tone (based on the words used, the kids thought the Marquis was lecturing in a “sinister” way)

A single sentence incorporated five diction devices!

The entire lesson took a period, but it set the groundwork for numerous lessons and deeper insights into the literature and into the careful selection of words.

I can use this as an introduction into more literary devices, character analyses, and most importantly the students’ choices about their own diction when speaking and writing. This type of lesson can help students improve their reading, writing, and speaking abilities.

P.S. I have the students fit their answers into a specific three-part structure.

  1. I have the students start their responses with the diction device they believe is employed in a piece of text. [Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in words close together, often at the beginnings of words.]
  2. Next, I have the students identify exactly where in the selected text, they believe the diction device is employed. [Alliteration is used in "dark deference" because the 'd' sound repeats in two consecutive words.] Sometimes I make the students use the finger test; they have to put their fingers on the evidence of the diction device.
  3. Lastly, I have the students start with “The effect of this is…” to ensure they have selected an example that has an intended purpose; it creates an intentional effect and is not accidentally present. [The effect of this use of alliteration is that the reader is drawn to the phrase "dark deference" (based on the repeated sound) because Dickens wants the reader to see that the Marquis desires obedience from fear and not respect.]

All together now:

Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in words close together, often at the beginnings of words. Alliteration is used in “dark deference” because the ‘d’ sound repeats in two consecutive words. The effect of this use of alliteration is that the reader is drawn to the phrase “dark deference” (based on the repeated sound) because Dickens wants the reader to see that the Marquis desires obedience from fear and not respect.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching Diction Terms

  1. Melissa

    Thanks for sharing this! The longer I teach, the more I realize how badly kids need this very explicit instruction in how to go about analyzing literature.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: metaphor example

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