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.