Teaching Denotation & Connotation – Part I

One of the first sets of literary devices I teach at any level is connotation and denotation. These are two of the most basic diction analysis techniques for students to learn since they are wide-reaching and allow students to discover tone, mood, inferences, and more. Denotation (the primary definition of a word) and connotation (the associated or secondary meaning of a word) are gateways to more in-depth analyses. They are what I call gateway devices.

My favorite example for this is to write the words “childish” and “childlike” on the board. I then ask the kids what they each mean. Oddly enough, when students answer they normally provide examples of the words’ connotations rather than their denotations: immature or babyish for “childish” and innocent or pure for “childlike.” I write their answers above the words, and then I direct a student to look up the definition for “childish.” The student responds “like or befitting a child.” I then ask a second student to look up “childlike,” and he/she says, “like or befitting a child.” These are written below the words.

I then ask a student how he would feel if I called him childish, and invariably he says he’d be insulted. I then put a negative next to childish. I ask another student the same question but with childlike. He says he’d feel complimented. Childlike gets a positive.

Same denotations, different connotations.

I then have the students look at a couple other words such as: cold, ignorant, preach, cheap, and sometimes I throw in colors. Lastly, I have the kids in pairs or small groups come up with their own examples.

A priority goal I have (power standard is the new buzz word) is to get my students to look at how a writer presents information, influences the audience, and expresses opinion. Most students have discovered how to access content, what is written, but understanding the how takes them to the next level. Denotation and connotation are base-level skills beginning the diction analysis process.

16 thoughts on “Teaching Denotation & Connotation – Part I

  1. McSwain

    Thank you for this. I have to teach connotation to 4th graders, of all things, and it is very difficult to explain and to find good examples for them. This helps.

  2. drpezz Post author

    No problem. Let me know if you have some good ideas as well. My sister teaches kindergarten and I take some of her ideas for my high schoolers all the time. A good idea is good no matter the level.

  3. Jim Van Pelt

    I do a similar lesson, but I give them this scenario: Imagine you are going on a first date with someone, and they ask you in to meet their mom. Would it make a difference to you if they asked you to come in to meet their mommy instead? What about if they wanted you to meet mama? How about meeting their mother? Or, to top it off, what if they asked if you would like to meet their female progenitor?

    (the paragraph above is a perfect example of why we either need a gender-neutral, human singular pronoun, or why we should just get over ourselves and accept “they” as singular in situations like the paragraph I just wrote)

    After that, we’re all over connotation and denotation. I like using Emily Dickinson’s “There is no frigate like a book” and Robert Graves “The naked and the nude.”

  4. drpezz Post author

    JVP – That Dickinson poem is one of my favorites! I use it for word choice and connotation as well. Great minds…

    I really like your example as well. I plan to post Part II soon, which details another way I use these devices.

  5. Pingback: Teaching Connotation & Denotation - Part II « The Doc Is In

  6. mrschili

    I still have to teach connotation and denotation to my COLLEGE students – in pretty much every class (grammar, lit., public speaking, and composition) that I teach. They need to be aware that their language means more than just what THEY think it means, and we have really interesting conversations about how the dictionary definition of a word can be very, very different from the word as a reader or listener takes it in, and that their connotations may well NOT be mine…

  7. Student

    I am a student and still find it hard to learn the difference.
    I must ask you teachers to take deep thought into explaining it to us students.

  8. drpezz Post author

    Deep thoughts…I don’t have many of those. 🙂

    Colors may be the best example. Why people choose colors is often based on their connotations. Yellow can mean cowardly, green can mean greedy, purple can mean royalty, red can mean angry, and so on.

    If I say to you, “you are ignorant” you’d probably be offended because people associate the word with negativity, an insult. However, the denotation actually means “doesn’t know.” I am ignorant of calculus is not a negatively associated term; it just means I don’t know about calculus. The way people attach emotions to words is the connotation.

    How’s that?

  9. Pingback: Oldies but Goodies « The Doc Is In

  10. Pingback: Oldies but Goodies « The Doc Is In

  11. ThinkPink*

    wow i have been trying to understand denotation and connotation for university course english paper and now after reading this i finally do thanks! 🙂

  12. mpietzzzzzzz

    wow…it’s wonderful time when i search for the theory of denotation…
    i really enjoy it,hopefully.because i have been confused by so many theories. i really don’t understand at all…
    may God bless us…
    good bye…
    we’ll meet again next time…

  13. Pingback: Are Classroom Rules Needed? | Classroom Management | So You Want To Teach?

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