One of the harder things to teach in vocabulary instruction is connotation, or the underlying meaning and associations of a word.
This was driven home for me as a teacher one day last semester when I was teaching Maya Angelou’s essay ironically titled “Finishing School,” about her first work experience as an African American maid in a wealthy white home. In discussing the title and what it might mean, my students, mostly urban, first-generation minorities with at least some ESL background, were stumped until one student blurted out “It’s where you’d go to be learn to be a woman.” I replied, “Close, but actually, it’s where you’d go to learn to be a lady.” Again, confusion—isn’t “lady” and “woman” the same thing? No, not exactly—they are denotatively, according to dictionary meaning, approximately the same—adult female. But the connotation, the underlying, secondary meaning, is different. One learns to be a lady from other ladies, it seems to me—to walk correctly and sit correctly and pour tea. One learns to be a woman from a man, in all probability, given the sexual connotation to the phrase.
Connotation is subtle, indirect, and to an extent, subjective, containing emotional content. Just the word “lady,” for example, for many has pleasant associations, conjuring up images of their mother or favorite teachers. To others, however, the term “lady” might suggest confinement and oppression, with its association with rules and propriety and even social class. Although a difficult concept, connotation should be taught. Not understanding the connotations of words can lead to misunderstandings and embarrassment: while an extreme example, the mistake of calling a male “pretty” rather than “handsome” is one that a student wouldn’t want to make.
So how do you teach connotation, given its difficulty?
Start by raising awareness on this issue “connotation.” Teach the terms “denotation” and “connotation.” Illustrate their relationship, perhaps graphically, with “denotation” and “lady” and on top and “connotation” on the bottom with “lady’s” connotations: polite, proper, neat, etc.
Illustrate the concept with a word with numerous synonyms, like “good-looking” Brainstorm the synonyms to “good-looking”: beautiful, cute, pretty, handsome, etc. What is the difference in connotation between “beautiful” and “pretty”? What is the difference in connotation of “cute” when applied to man and a woman? A child? An inanimate object, like a house?
While reading, take note of the author’s word choice and discuss connotation. “Why do you think he called his brother a ‘clever’ businessman in the second paragraph? What’s the connotation of ‘clever’ here?” Other possible questions to ask: What are some connotations to “clever”? What are some other words that mean about the same thing as ‘”clever”? How are their connotations different: what is the difference between being “clever” and being “intelligent”?
Watch a clip from a TV or movie, preferably related to the course reading, and take note of the characters’ word choice. ”When she said ‘sorry’ in that particular tone, ‘sorry,’ with the stress on the second syllable, does the meaning change from the usual meaning of ‘sorry’? What is the connotation? Is she really sorry?”
Act it out. Take a short scene from a reading and act out a scene with a peer. Vary the connotation through varying sentence and word stress as above. How does even the meaning of “Good morning” change when said as “Good morning!, stressing the last syllable? How does the speaker feel about the morning?
Have students practice connotation in journals, using the same word in different contexts, or using synonyms of the same word, varying connotation. For example, challenge them to write about a “smart” person and come up with different synonyms for “smart,” varying the connotation appropriately: e.g., “She’s intelligent because she understands math very well but also crafty because she can beat you at cards.”
Have students read a newspaper article on an important topic, such as the upcoming national election. Note the author’s use of connotation. How are key terms like “politician” used? Are the connotations positive or negative? Why? Can we judge something about the author’s perspective on the topic from the choice of words and connotation?
Have a student describe something for the class: for example, the park near the school. Let others know his or her perspective by use of connotation. Describing it as “stark, bare, and lonely” sounds very different than “solitary, quiet, and peaceful,” although it might apply to the same place. The class will listen then decide what the speaker’s feelings about the place are based on the use connotation.
Or describe a person for the class. See if the class can tell your relationship to the person by your use of connotation. Is it your mother, girlfriend, little sister, professor? Does use of connotation vary with each?
Do it in writing. Students can describe something, like the classroom or the quad, using pleasant connotations. Then they can pass their papers to a partner, who will describe the same thing in negative terms, by changing connotation.
Connotation can be difficult to teach because it is subjective in nature.
Not understanding how to interpret connotation and how to use it can lead to embarrassment and missing out on important information. There are, fortunately, specific elements to this important concept that can be defined, practiced, and taught.
How do you teach connotation? Please share in the comments below!