Recent news articles about fake news and “alternative facts” make it clear that media literacy is an essential skill we should be building in our classrooms.
Beyond figuring out what’s real or fake, students need to understand how persuasive language affects their media experience. That starts with helping them develop rhetorical insight on how word choice and tone affect an audience’s emotional reaction to the information they read. (After all, persuasive language aims to trigger a response.)
Understanding the emotional weight of word choice significantly improves students’ ability to engage media critically. This is the first step toward learning the power (and danger) of persuasive writing, which in turn helps them learn to use it properly in their assignments.
Denotation vs. connotation
As students learn to decode and compose writing, teachers focus primarily on denotation — the literal definition of a word. We ask ourselves: Do students understand what the word means and how to use it?
That’s an essential start, but as students begin to do research and employ persuasive language in assignments, they must take the additional step of learning connotation — what words imply aside from their literal meaning. Certain words have emotional associations, be they positive or negative, that help students see pathos, or the emotional power of writing. Persuasive writing attempts to use this emotional response to move the reader to act. That’s what makes it so powerful, and why students need to understand how it works.
Teaching students about persuasion starts with loaded language: words with such significant connotations that they unfairly skew a reader’s experience. The following lessons help students explore word choice and reflect on the persuasive language around them.
A simple start: word sort
Often students have an intuitive sense of whether words are good, bad or neutral, which helps set the stage for conversations about persuasive language.
For this lesson, give students cards or name tags with sortable words that carry positive, negative or neutral connotations. Enchanted Learning has positive and negative vocabulary lists that are helpful. For example, one meaning across the three categories could be: indistinct (neutral), soft (positive) and dull (negative). Once students have received their labels, have them self-sort into positive, negative and neutral groupings.
Request that the group come to a consensus on the people/words they include, and develop an explanation to share with the class. Start a group discussion of how/why words were included or excluded. Once students have finished, give a short reading to the groups and have them rewrite it using neutral, positive or negative language. Then have groups share their work with the whole class.
Experience and vision
This lesson helps students see the influence of individual experience on how people see and describe the world.
To begin, have students create an imaginary character, disposition and mood. Sharing a mood chart or even an emoji keyboard can help them pick their character’s mood. Then show the class the image of a neutral landscape and ask them to spend 10 minutes writing a description of that scene from their character’s point of view without disclosing their adopted attitude.
Place students in groups of three or four and have them share their writing, while withholding their character and mood. Have the rest of the group use the clues they find on word choice to guess the author’s character and mood.
After guessing, have the authors disclose their characters and moods, and encourage groups to help each author revise their writing to increase the persuasive descriptive language. If possible, display both the image and the student samples, so they have a visual reminder of angle of vision and the influence of emotion on language choice.
Loaded language in multiple voices
For older students who are familiar with positive and negative tone and word choice, consider a more advanced assignment.
For this exercise, have students read one positive, one negative and one neutral article about a single event. Do not label the pieces as positive, negative or neutral. Assign this as homework, requiring students to annotate the pieces looking for similarities, differences and potentially loaded language.
Ask them to circle words they believe carry emotional connotation. Splitting students into groups, assign one article to each group. Have them discuss their notes with each other and prepare to lead the class in a discussion of their article.
Once the class is finished, have each student write a brief reflection exploring how their understanding of the event was affected by reading all three pieces and how they may have been limited having read only one.
Consistency is key
However students learn about word choice and tone, remind them to be vigilant in identifying positive and negative connotations in word choice. Outside of scheduled lessons, encourage them to examine word choice in their textbooks, lessons and even their own commentary.
Persuasive language is designed to get people to take action. Whether the language is positive or negative, readers need a deep awareness of how it reveals an author’s intent.
These conversations encourage students to consistently examine the emotional impact of word choice so their persuasive language can be effective but fair.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.Learn More: Click to view related resources.