Connotation, denotation: What’s the difference?

Before you begin teaching your ELA students the difference between denotation and connotation, I suggest you show them that they already know something about that difference even if they don’t know that they know it.

With this three-item set of informal writing prompts, you can lay the groundwork for teaching in under five minutes and give students some writing practice at the same time.

Guide to using informal prompts

When you use these or any other informal prompts, I recommend that you display the prompts so students can follow along as you read them aloud. Use a timer, preferably one with an audible tick, to provide a sense of urgency. Have students respond as soon as you’ve read them an individual prompt.

Collect and scan the students’ writing. It will give you valuable feedback about students’ mastery of content and writing skills.


Informal prompt #1

Think about the nouns dream and fantasy. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #2

Think about the nouns explorer and adventurer. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #3

Think about the nouns tinkerer and inventor. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.


By the time students have finished responding to the three prompts, they will be primed to learn the terms connotation and denotation and to apply them to the comparisons they’ve analyzed.

After you’ve presented your material on connotation and denotation, you may wish to have students do a final 1-minute writing. Here’s the fourth informal prompt:

Optional: prompt #4

Look back over the responses you wrote to the three prompts at the start of class.  If one of your responses doesn’t look too good in light of what you learned today, write a new response to that prompt. You will have 1 minute to write.

Argument texts are fine; argumentative texts are not

I thought a million years of teaching freshman composition had inured me to people using the wrong word, but I was wrong.

Lately I’ve seen the word argumentative used in place of argument all over my Twitter feed, and the mistake is being made by English teachers.

Argument means polite discussion

An argument is a discussion in which differing perspectives are offered on a single topic and discussed within certain rules of logic and civility that are traditionally referred to as argumentation.

Traditionally, English teachers spoke about argument essays, which meant a text in which the writer was expected to know what people who disagreed with her position believed and, whenever possible, to show that the opposition’s logic or was flawed or its evidence inadequate to support the opposition’s position.

Argument is a forensic activity

When I was a teenager, the organization that’s now known as the National Speech and Debate Association was the National Forensic League.  Forensics in that context meant the study of the formal art of argumentation. In other contexts, forensics is the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts in, for example, an accident or legal proceeding.

Arguments are supposed to be forensic activities.  Their goal is to establish facts upon which people can agree.

That means arguments are not argumentative. 

Argumentativeness is a negative quality

Being argumentative is anything but civil. All the meanings of argumentative are negative. It means, according the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed., "contentious, disputatious, quarrelsome, scrappy."

The American Heritage Dictionary gives these examples of how argumentative is used: "an argumentative child; a contentious mood; a disputatious scholar; a quarrelsome drinker; a scrappy exchange."

When English teachers use the term argumentative writing, they suggest to their students raised voices, slammed doors, and hurled insults.

Let’s not give that impression.

Twentieth century society is uncivil enough without teachers implying argumentative behavior belongs in academic classrooms.

Snake oil and double meanings

cover of The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic GossIn our era of fake news, it is useful to introduce students to the way words can be used to deceive.

In the 1900 bestselling novel The Redemption of David Corson by Charles Frederic Goss, which I reviewed over on GreatPenformances blog, one funny scene presents a patent-medicine salesman’s sales pitch for worthless cures.

The snake oil salesman has gathered a clutch of people around and is reading testimonials from satisfied customers:

‘Dear Sir: I was wounded in the Mexican war. I have been unable to walk without crutches for many years; but after using your liniment, I ran for office!’ Think of it, gentlemen, the day of miracles has not passed. ‘I lost my eyesight four years ago, but used a bottle of your “wash” and saw wood.’ Saw wood, gentlemen, what do you think of that? He saw wood! ‘Some time ago I lost the use of both arms; but a kind friend furnished me with a box of your pills, and the next day I struck a man for ten dollars.’ There is a triumph of the medical art, my friends. And yet even this is surpassed by the following: ‘I had been deaf for many years, stone deaf; but after using your ointment, I heard that my aunt had died and left me ten thousand dollars.’ Think of it, gentlemen, ten thousand dollars! And a written guarantee goes with every bottle, that the first thing a stone-deaf man will hear after using this medicine will be that his aunt has died and left him ten thousand dollars.

If I were to use this, I’d probably have students read it and then pose some informal writing questions about the text:

  • When you read the paragraph, what do you visualize the speaker doing? How does the salesman act?
  • What would you say is the salesman’s attitude toward his audience? On what do you base your impression?
  • How would you describe the audience? Is your attitude the same as the salesman’s?
  • The text doesn’t tell you how the audience responds. What you do think their response would be?
  • How would you describe this passage : descriptive? expository? persuasive? comic? serious? sad? Why did you choose that description?

I think it would be fun to have the class ham¹ act the role of the salesman, maybe shoot a video of the re-enactment.

The Redemption of David Corson is available as Project Gutenberg  eBook #14730. The paragraph quoted above is in chapter 12.

¹ ham  is a word with a double meaning.

 

Define ‘good paying jobs’

If Hillary Clinton loses the 2016 election, it could well be because she defines “good paying jobs” differently than a significant chunk of the electorate.

Last night as I watched as Clinton accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, I was struck by her implied definition of the term “good paying jobs.”

She never defined the term, but it was clear from the context in which she used it—”clean energy jobs” and “advanced manufacturing” for example—that she was talking about jobs that didn’t exist last century, jobs that were just getting a good foothold when the economy plunged into recession in 2008.

I don’t believe the angry, white American males who support Donald Trump  (or their female counterparts) would consider those “good paying jobs.”

Clinton’s “good paying jobs” require people to acquire new skills and to keep updating their skills routinely.

I suspect the angry, white males think of “good paying jobs” as those a high school graduate can walk in off the street and learn to do in a couple of weeks—and keep doing for the next half century with regular, substantial pay raises.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, you ought to think what “good paying jobs” means in your students’ communities.

If the definition favors those who stop learning at the end of formal schooling, you have some educating to do.

Differing perspectives

Reading Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education today I felt as if I’d stumbled into a foreign country.

The English teacher says, “Engage in an ongoing reflective conversation with the texts of your life.”

The journalist says, “Write what you know.”

I think I want to go back to journalism.

I understand that language.

Free Online Linguistics Glossary

Linguistics, the study of language, is a a neglected but vital part of English language arts.

It’s also an area that excites many students. Teachers ought to expand their linguistic knowledge for that reason, if for no other.Snip from web page of linguistics glossary

Like other sciences, linguistics has its own vocabulary. If you don’t know a morpheme from a motor bike, the LinguaLinks glossary of linguistic terms is a good place to find definitions of those specialized terms. The glossary is available free to anyone, no registration needed.

LinguaLinks  is not a site for K-12 students. Use it for your professional development.

If your grammar terminology is shaky, you can get help understanding terms like clause or verbal noun from LinguaLinks.

The glossary is also useful for anyone who must teach reading.

The glossary is part of the LinguaLinks Library developed by  SIL International, which the organization sells. The organization’s website is worth a look for ideas on using language topics to make school meaningful to students from diverse backgrounds living in a global community.

SIL began in 1934 as the Summer Institute for Linguistics. The nonprofit organization’s  “works alongside ethnolinguistic communities and their partners as they discover how language development addresses the challenging areas of their daily lives.”

 

Obfuscate to empower adolescents

Writing teachers should engage in obfuscation to empower adolescents’ adult aspirations.

Translation: Use adult words to hide “kid stuff.”

Classroom management is easier if teens get the respect they crave. So, for example, “establish classroom protocol” instead of having rules. Teens think rules are for kids. Most teens won’t know what protocol is, but it sounds way more grownup than following rules.


[This first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Writing Points ©2008 Linda G. Aragoni.]

Harness the Power of Words in Teaching Writing

Those of us who teach writing know that words are powerful. All too often, however, we slouch into using comfortable terminology rather than exerting ourselves to find words that will clearly communicate to our students ideas and attitudes we want them to adopt.

We need to train ourselves to think like marketers and advertisers, using language that conveys precise information to our audience, leading them to believe that being able to write competently is both desirable and achievable.

Here are three ways writing teachers can harness word power:

Avoid confusing terms

Many terms in the English/communications teachers’ vocabularies have two or more meanings; sometimes the definitions are even contradictory. For example:

  • A thesis can refer to a single sentence or a book length manuscript.
  • Narrative and exposition are different ways of organizing writing, but narrative writing often includes expository paragraphs.

Such dual meanings can easily bewilder students.

Probably the single biggest source of confusion for writing students, however, is grammar terminology. Many grammar terms are used today to mean what they meant to students clutching quill pens, not what they mean to students scrolling iPads.

For example, students are told that a verb shows “action or state of being” even though the only place they have encountered the word state it referred to a geo-political entity, like Nebraska. Other grammar terms whose everyday contemporary use is different from their original meanings include run-on, tense, and perfect.

Seize alternative language

If students find a term vague or confusing when they first encounter it, their bewilderment is a signal that teachers should look for alternative language. Telling students that an essay is a short piece of nonfiction, for example, does not help them distinguish an essay from a newspaper article or from a travel brochure.

If you teach in a school that uses Common Core State Standards you probably know the CCSS avoids the term essay, preferring terms that describe the content of the writing: arguments and informative or explanatory text. Common Core also avoids the term thesis statement (or thesis sentence), using the term claim instead.

Alternatives to bewildering language could be a circumlocution that uses language students already. Calling an introductory element “a fragment that appears ahead of the main sentence” is an example of such a circumlocution.

Inventing a term that students will understand is another option. I use the term writing skeleton™ instead of outline because I found students associated outlining with identifying points in already-written content. By changing my language enabled them to see how outlining can be used to structure writing they plan to do.

Use positively emotional words

Way too many terms we use in education have unfortunate connotations in the wider world; those connotations scare students in the classroom. By choosing terms that students will hear as positive, useful, and achievable, we can reduce class-induced stress to manageable levels that won’t interfere with learning.

For example, we tell students they must meet terminal objectives, which sound deadly, when we could talk about ultimate objectives, which sound superior to others. Or we urge students to use critical thinking, which sounds nasty, when we could talk about smart thinking or reliable thinking or genuine thinking. Each of those sounds honest and useful.

By matching our terminology to the needs of our students, we can avoid many of the perpetual problems of teaching writing—which would be good for them and us.

[2014-04-25 removed broken link]

 

Bullying writing prompts collection available

Bullying Begins as Words

Bullying is a behavior problem, but it occurs within a communications situation. My latest e-book, Bullying Begins as Words, uses that fact to pull students into exploring verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication.

The nonfiction writing prompts in Bullying Begins as Words allow teens, college students, and adult students to examine those communications choices that can change communications situations,  including unpleasant ones like bullying incidents, for the better.

The prompts in Bullying Begins as Words are more than excuses for writing. They are associated with topics other than writing that are found in nearly every English program from middle school through college. The prompts are designed to be used with any textbook or no textbook.

English-communications topics addressed in the prompts include:

  • Metaphors
  • Connotation/denotation
  • Character development in literature
  • Developing awareness of an audience’s needs and preferences

Although there are only a dozen prompts in the collection, they take up 40 of the 62 pages of the book. Each student prompt includes everything students need to understand the assignment and get started on it.

The teacher materials  accompanying each prompt point out parts of the assignment that are likely to pose difficulty for students. The teacher materials also show each prompt fits with Common Core State Standards and the “revised Bloom’s taxonomy.”

Bullying Begins as Words is designed to provide English and communications teachers with writing prompts on genuine English and communications topics.The writing prompts are not designed to comfort victims of bullying, intervene in bullying situations, or prevent bullying.

If the writing prompts in Bullying Begins as Words reduce bullying, they will do it by increasing students’ awareness of the messages they send by their verbal and nonverbal communications choices.

[Link  to Bullying Begins as Words removed 2014-04-24. The book is is not currently available.

Bullying writing prompts collection available

Bullying Begins as Words Bullying is a behavior problem, but it occurs within a communications situation. My latest e-book, Bullying Begins as Words, uses that fact to pull students into exploring verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication. The nonfiction writing prompts in Bullying Begins as Words allow teens, college students, and adult students to examine those communications choices that can change communications situations,  including unpleasant ones like bullying incidents, for the better. The prompts in Bullying Begins as Words are more than excuses for writing. They are associated with topics other than writing that are found in nearly every English program from middle school through college. The prompts are designed to be used with any textbook or no textbook. English-communications topics addressed in the prompts include:

  • Metaphors
  • Connotation/denotation
  • Character development in literature
  • Developing awareness of an audience’s needs and preferences

Although there are only a dozen prompts in the collection, they take up 40 of the 62 pages of the book. Each student prompt includes everything students need to understand the assignment and get started on it. The teacher materials  accompanying each prompt point out parts of the assignment that are likely to pose difficulty for students. The teacher materials also show each prompt fits with Common Core State Standards and the "revised Bloom’s taxonomy." Bullying Begins as Words is designed to provide English and communications teachers with writing prompts on genuine English and communications topics.The writing prompts are not designed to comfort victims of bullying, intervene in bullying situations, or prevent bullying. If the writing prompts in Bullying Begins as Words reduce bullying, they will do it by increasing students’ awareness of the messages they send by their verbal and nonverbal communications choices. [Link  to Bullying Begins as Words removed 2014-04-24. The book is is not currently available.