Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help students distinguish between words with similar definitions but different connotations?

Applicable Grades:

(Note: this lesson could also work well with ESL students of any grade level.)

Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, small groups of students will compete in a "shades of meaning" contest to see which group can use the VT to help them match words with similar definitions but different connotations in the shortest amount of time.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. learn the definitions of "connotation" and "denotation"
  2. identify words with similar definitions but different connotations
  3. distinguish between positive (or neutral) and negative connotations of specific words


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • blank "Connotation Charts" [click here to download]
  • "24 Adjectives" list [click here to download]
  • "Answer Key" [click here to download]

Warm Up:

Writing journal entries about word choice:
  • In their journals or notebooks, have students write in response to the following prompt: If you were writing an advertisement for a brand new product, would you call it "newfangled" or "cutting-edge" to attract potential buyers? Choose one of these words and explain your decision.
  • Elicit student volunteers to read from their journal entries and discuss why most students would choose the word "newfangled" over the word "cutting-edge" to promote a product. What are students' associations with each of these two words?


Analyzing words' denotations and connotations by using the Visual Thesaurus:
  • Display the word webs for "cutting edge" and "newfangled" on the white board and have students examine their definitions in the meaning lists. Then, have students note the other words associated with "cutting edge" and "newfangled" by looking over the words that branch out from each of them.
  • Ask students to point out what the two words' definitions have in common. Students will most likely point out that they are both adjectives that are used to modify something new or fashionable. Explain to students that these two definitions are called "denotations" or literal meanings.
  • Continue the comparison and contrast of "cutting edge" and "newfangled" by asking students which word has more positive words associated with it. Students will recognize that while "newfangled" is only associated with the neutral word "new," "cutting-edge" is associated with other positive words and expressions such as "latest," "up-to-date," and "with-it." Explain that a word's suggested or implied associations are thought of as its "connotations." Students chose "cutting-edge" over "newfangled" based on the positive connotations associated with "cutting-edge" -- not because of the difference between these words' definitions.
Competing in a "shades of meaning" contest:
  • Organize the class into small groups or teams with no more than four students in each group. Then hand each group a blank "Connotations Chart" [click here to download].
  • Explain to groups that you are about to distribute a list of twenty-four adjectives listed in a random order. When you scream "Go!" it will be each group's job to sort the 24 words into a list of 12 pairs of words with similar definitions. Once the group has determined the 12 pairs, students need to accurately complete the "Connotations Chart" by correctly identifying the word in each pair that has a neutral or positive connotation and the word in each pair that has a negative connotation. The first team that approaches your desk with an accurately completed "Connotation Chart" wins the contest (and prizes if you wish).
  • Direct teams to use the Visual Thesaurus to determine definitions and associations for unfamiliar words.
  • Distribute the list of "24 Adjectives" [click here to download] to each group and shout "Go!"
  • When a team approaches your desk with a completed "Connotations Chart," consult the "Answer Key" [click here to download] to see if they matched the 12 pairs of words and correctly identified the words with negative (or neutral) and positive connotations in each of the pairs.


Discussing the "winning" combinations:
  • Have a representative of the winning team read aloud the group's entries on its completed "Connotations Chart."
  • If time permits, have students read through all the positive or neutral adjectives and ask students to identify adjectives that would make a person sound appealing. Would they want to meet a person described as "bold" or "energetic"? "Self-confident" or "curious"? Then, have students read through the negative counterparts of those same words and discuss what they suggest. Would students want to meet a person described as "brash" or "hyperactive"? "Smug" or "nosey"?
Extending the Lesson:
  • A fun way you could reinforce this lesson on connotations would be to have half of the students in the class write profiles for an imaginary student's MySpace page (MySpace.com) using adjectives in the positive or neutral column and then the other half of the students could write similar profiles but with the adjectives in the negative column.


  • By the end of the lesson, each team should have an accurately completed "Connotations Chart."
  • Students' mastery of the specific connotation pairs presented in the contest could be easily assessed by giving the class a subsequent quiz featuring the original list of 24 words and a blank connotations chart.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level II (Grades 3-5)

6. Uses word reference materials (e.g., glossary, dictionary, thesaurus) to determine the meaning, pronunciation, and derivations of unknown words

7. Understands level-appropriate reading vocabulary (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homophones, multi-meaning words)

Level III (Grades 6-8)

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Level II (Grades 3-5)

1. Contributes to group discussions

2. Asks questions in class (e.g., when he or she is confused, to seek others' opinions and comments)

3. Responds to questions and comments (e.g., gives reasons in support of opinions, responds to others' ideas)

4. Listens to classmates and adults (e.g., does not interrupt, faces the speaker, asks questions, summarizes or paraphrases to confirm understanding, gives feedback, eliminates barriers to effective listening)

15. Knows specific ways in which language is used in real-life situations (e.g., buying something from a shopkeeper, requesting something from a parent, arguing with a sibling, talking to a friend)

16. Understands that language reflects different regions and cultures (e.g., sayings; expressions; usage; oral traditions and customs; historical, geographical, and societal influences on language)

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Plays a variety of roles in group discussions (e.g., active listener, discussion leader, facilitator)

2. Asks questions to seek elaboration and clarification of ideas

3. Uses strategies to enhance listening comprehension (e.g., takes notes; organizes, summarizes, and paraphrases spoken ideas and details)