The difference between the connotation and the denotation of a word is very distinct and teaching children to understand it can improve their writing by showing how much word choice can affect interpretation. The denotation of a work is its dictionary definition, its literal meaning. The connotation, on the other hand, is the emotional associations of the word and the feelings and images it conjures up. Many different methods can be used to teach connotations and denotations, but using differing meanings of the same word is the most efficient way of conveying the difference between these two terms.
Choose a word which has a connotation which is significantly different from its literal meaning. For example, use the word “gray,” in reference to the color. Ask the student to look up the word in the dictionary. The dictionary definition will describe the color, most likely as a middle-ground between black and white. Explain that denotation is a literal definition, like those found in the dictionary. Point out the alliteration, that “denotation,” “dictionary” and “definition” all begin with “D,” to help the student remember.
Explain to the students that word sgenerally have two types of meaning, a connotation and a denotation. Remind them that they have just heard the denotation of the word and ask if they can think what a connotation could be. Push them in the right direction by asking what else comes into their mind when they think about the word “gray.” If no students respond with one of the connotations of the word, use an example of your own. You could say, for example, that “gray” makes you think of clouds and cold weather.
Use examples of other words to help students practice their understanding of the difference between connotation and denotation. For example, ask them for a denotative definition of the word “home,” followed by any connotations of the word that come to mind. Clarify that the connotations of a word are the feelings, memories and images that it conjures up in your mind.
Describe someone, a celebrity perhaps, as “skinny.” Ask the students what that makes them think about the person in question. Then, change the descriptive word to “slender” and ask them what they think now. Explain that using words with different connotations is one way people can try to influence you to think in a certain way. Using a word like “penny-pincher” to describe someone who likes to save money makes them sound mean, but changing the word to something like “thrifty,” although equal in denotation, makes them seem wise and sensible.
Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.