Using Paint Strips to Teach Connotation

Connotation: an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, according to Google. Connotation, to me, answers the question, “How deeply does this word make me feel a certain emotion? The word “bad” has a negative connotation to it, yet so does the word “devastating”. Yet, English teachers can’t deny that the negative feeling associated with the word “devastating” is magnified in comparison to the word “bad”. This is what teaching connotation is all about.

Understanding connotation is a multi-step process that most students will not grasp with a basic PowerPoint and worksheet. I know…I tried that avenue. I failed. Thankfully, these students were vocal about my dismal failure because it pushed me as an educator to think outside the box for a way to truly reach them with this topic that is ESSENTIAL to creating inventive and thoughtful writers.

Step One: Teach Students About Synonyms

You cannot skip this step. Students must know what a synonym is and often do not (or they need a refresher). Practice using a simple word that everyone in the room knows. I use the word “bad” in my own practice lesson. Students will need to brainstorm to come up with synonyms of the word “bad” and write them down.

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This is the scaffolded version of my Connotation Sunburst Worksheet

Step Two: Teach Students About Levels of Connotation of a Group of Synonyms

Next, students must begin the process of understanding that the connotative meaning of a word has to do with the feeling that is associated with that word. Explain to students that the word “good” has a positive connotation, or feeling, associated with it, while the word “bad” has a negative connotation associated with it. As a group, or in pairs, students should come up with another example of two words that have opposing connotations, or feelings associated with their meaning.

Step Three: Rank Group of Synonyms According to Connotation

Students should rank each synonym that they previously found. I choose to have students rank the words on a plain worksheet the first round, mainly to get them used to the process without any color or further directions. They then must explain their ranking choice in writing. Students LOVE to try to say, “Well, this one just seems more negative!” but I do not let such a lackadaisical explanation slide. Prompt them to use the other synonyms in their explanation, and push them beyond basic answers.

Step Four: Repeat Finding Synonyms with a New Word – Then Rank Using Paint Strips

I always teach this lesson in two rounds. The first round is wonderful for students to practice their rankings, explanations and to work with the teacher and their classmates as a sounding board for their ideas. It’s very energetic, and they get the opportunity to hear their classmates logic as well as the teacher’s.

The second round, give the students a new word that they may be working with in their unit lessons. I provide a vocabulary word that they have been learning. Then, have them find synonyms for their vocabulary word in small groups, this time limiting the voices that are guiding their answers.

Then, students will rank the connotative meaning of these synonyms independently using the paint strips to guide them. Pick up paint strips from a hardware store, or use the ones in my TpT resource and have students rank the words (words with a more positive connotation should be written in the lighter hues, while words with a more negative connotation should be written in the darker hues). Then, have the students explain their reasoning for their ranking either on the backs of the paint strips or on a separate sheet of paper.

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Paint Strips Ranking Worksheet

Note: It is difficult to write on real paint strips with pen or pencil. Permanent Markers work fine.

Step Five: Teach Students to Critically Consider Word Choice in a Sentence

From here, you may choose where to lead students. I use a worksheet where students place the synonyms they came up with for “bad” into the same sentence and answer questions about sentence meaning. Another great further practice would be to teach students about author’s purpose. Then, provide students with an author’s purpose and have them alter words in a pre-written paragraph to meet the specified purpose. This is higher-level thinking that will challenge even your most excelled students.

If you want to use the worksheets and handouts that I have found to be effective in my classroom, you may download my Connotation Lesson from TpT.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t assume that students know how to slow down and think critically about how a word is appropriate for the context of a sentence. These students are learning and growing in a world where getting information out quickly is highly valued. Word choice takes a back seat to slang, text talk and who can speak the quickest. Slowing down to consider their purpose for writing or speaking is a skill that must be taught to this generation. Teach it with patience and care, and understand that this may not come easily to many of them. Yet, it is so critical for them to have this skill in the future, simply because so much stems from being able to speak and write with purpose in mind.

I hope this helps guide some of you to reach even more of your students this year!

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