Teaching…Denotations and Connotations

The Situation

Your students need to understand that words have specific meanings and are used in specific contexts.

The Solution

You need to teach your students about denotations and connotations.

Denotations refer to what an object literally is. 

For example:

  • An owl is literally a bird. 
  • A diamond ring is literally a piece of jewellery.
  • The colour black is literally a colour. 

Connotations are the hidden social meanings we humans attach to literal objects. 

For example:

  • An owl is a symbol of wisdom.
  • A diamond ring is a symbol of love and commitment.
  • The colour black can be a symbol of evil or depression.

First, show them both of these images. Ask students what they are. You will get answers like, rose and skull and bones. Fantastic! But what if I put the skull and bones on a drink bottle or I give the rose to someone on Valentine’s Day? The meaning is now different isn’t it? Put forth this question to students see what they come up with. Reinforce the idea that the meaning has now changed.

Afterwards, present students with the following table. Students will need to record the literal meaning in the first boxing the secondary/hidden meaning in the second box. See the examples:

SymbolsDenotation (Literal Meaning)Connotation (Hidden Meaning)
1. Red RosesFlower love, Valentine’s Day
2. Skull and bones
3. Dove

If your students are willing, give them a chance to look at different types of words below. Each word has a similar overall meaning, but their denotation has subtle differences. For example, I wouldn’t use the word scrawny and small in the same context. Once students can identify that each word has a slightly different meaning and context, they can look at whether the word has a positive, neutral or negative connotation.

Denotation (Literal Meaning)Connotation (Positive, neutral or negative)
ScrawnyThin and bony Negative

Based on this learning, students will have the fundamental understand to identify secondary meanings in a short written text like a poem.

Get them to read a short poem, or something descriptive to identify key words in the text. They can then apply the same method and identify any secondary meanings of the text.

Here is a fantastic resource that you might find helpful during your instruction:

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