Developed in partnership with: The New York Times Learning Network

Lesson Question:

How can students use descriptive language to convey their feelings about a product?

Applicable Grades:

6-12

Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students analyze a writer's use of sensory details and descriptive language in a New York Times article reviewing the Apple iPhone. Then, students are asked to write original product reviews which incorporate some of the descriptive writing techniques identified and evaluated in class.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. use the five senses to respond to a work of art
  2. evaluate a writer's use of sensory details and descriptive language in a product review
  3. determine adjectives' definitions and connotations using the VT
  4. synthesize knowledge of descriptive language techniques by writing original product reviews

Materials:

Warm Up:

Using the five senses to respond to a work of art:
  • Before class, display a print or poster that features a work of art that would inspire students to use strong adjectives in describing it. For example, an abstract painting by Jackson Pollack or Paul Klee could work well for this exercise. (Ask your school's librarian to see if they have available art posters or prints.)
  • List the five senses on the board (i.e., sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste). As students enter the classroom, ask them to study the displayed work of art and to then use their five senses to write a list of words to describe their reactions to it. (Explain to students that although they cannot actually hear, touch, smell, or taste the art, that they can still use these senses to express their feelings. For example, does the art feel "warm" or "cold"? Is it "loud" or "quiet"? Does it taste "sweet" or "bitter"? etc.)
  • Elicit students' responses and establish that the words they listed are considered adjectives because they were all used to describe or modify a noun (the artwork). Also establish that some of the adjectives can be interpreted literally (e.g., those adjectives used to describe sight-bright, dark, colorful, geometric, etc.) and that many of the adjectives are used metaphorically or figuratively (e.g, those adjectives used to describe the other four senses-loud, soft, smooth, coarse, pungent, sour, etc.).
  • To reiterate the point that certain descriptive words can be used both literally and figuratively, display the VT web for the word "coarse" on the white board and have students point out which of the adjective definitions (color-coded in gold) would be most fitting to describe a work of art. Perhaps one student might describe a painting as "coarse" because its brushstrokes seem "rough" or "grainy" and another student might use the adjective "coarse" because he or she considers the content of the painting "gross" or "vulgar."

Instruction:

Reading a product review and identifying descriptive language:
  • Explain to students that writers often evoke the five senses when they are trying to describe something new they have encountered.
  • Inform students that they are about to read a Times product review in which journalist David Pogue describes Apple's soon-to-be-released iPhone and his feelings about this new product using sensory details, descriptive adjectives, and metaphorical language.
  • Distribute copies of the New York Times article "State of the Art: Apple Waves Its Wand At the Phone," available at the following URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/11/technology/11pogue.html.
  • Ask students to read the Times article, circling examples where Pogue uses sensory details, descriptive adjectives, or metaphorical language in describing the iPhone or for another purpose in the review (or "preview" as Pogue calls it).
Analyzing a writer's use of sensory details and metaphorical language:
  • Elicit students' examples of how Pogue used his five senses to describe the iPhone. For example, Pogue used physical details about the iPhone to help his readers visualize the product: "Its face is shiny black, rimmed by mirror-finish stainless steel." Pogue also made references to the iPhone's sound quality (e.g., "The speaker is on the bottom edge, rather than the back, where it would be muffled when the phone is set down.") and to describe how one uses touch to activate the iPhone's search features (e.g., "...you flick your finger on the glass to send the list scrolling freely, according to the speed of your flick.").
  • Direct the class discussion to focus on how Pogue uses metaphorical language to capture the significance of the iPhone's creation. Emphasize the central analogy between Apple's creation of the iPhone and Cinderella's fairy godmother's ability to transform "some homely and utilitarian object, like a pumpkin or a mouse into something glamourous and amazing?" How does this comparison communicate Pogue's overall feeling about Apple and its latest creation?
Evaluating adjectives using the VT:
  • Have students join small groups to "pool" the adjectives they circled as they read "State of the Art: Apple Waves Its Wand At the Phone." Then, have each group create a two-columned chart where group members list all "negative" adjectives in one column and all "positive" adjectives in the other column (students can disregard "neutral" adjectives). Encourage students to use the Visual Thesaurus as a reference aid during this sorting process. For example, if a group is unsure about the connotation or definition of the word "homely" from the article's first paragraph, they could look it up on the VT and discover this adjective is defined as "lacking in physical beauty or proportion" and is associated with such words as "plain" and "inelegant"; therefore, "homely" should be placed in the "negative" adjective column.
  • After groups have sorted adjectives into "positive" and "negative" chart columns, have them review how many of the positive and negative adjectives were used to describe the iPhone and how Pogue used descriptive adjectives to convey his feelings about the iPhone. [Students will discover that the majority of the positive adjectives in the review (e.g., gorgeous, spectacular, super-smart, wicked cool, etc.) were used to describe the iPhone, while many of the negative adjectives (e.g., homely, ordinary, awkward, etc.) were used to contrast the iPhone with "lesser" products.]

Wrap-up:

Writing original product reviews:
  • Tell students that now it is their turn to use descriptive language to express their feelings about a new or interesting product.
  • For homework or in a subsequent lesson, have each student choose a product to review in a short article. For example, students may wish to review a new candy bar on the market, a recently-released CD, or even a new kitchen gadget that they have discovered. Students need not worry about their product choices as much as how they will use sensory or metaphorical language to creatively describe the physical characteristics of the product, its features, or their views about its quality. (Students should appeal to at least two of the five senses, include at least one metaphor, and use strong "positive" or "negative" adjectives in their reviews.)
  • If students get "stuck" during the review-writing process, suggest they use the VT as a resource as they search for descriptive adjectives.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Students could share their completed product reviews in a later class by creating product exhibitions. Each student could set up his or her desk as a mini-product exhibition by placing the product (or an image of the product) and related review on the desk. Then, fellow classmates could circulate throughout the room, checking out the products, reading the reviews, and writing feedback to the writers on sticky-notes or on sign-in sheets placed alongside the reviews.

Assessment:

  • Check each group's adjective chart to make sure that students identified a sufficient number of adjectives from the Times article and listed each adjective in the correct column (i.e., "positive" or "negative").
  • Assess each student's product review for creative use of sensory details, descriptive adjectives, and metaphorical language.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas (e.g., establishes tone and mood, uses figurative language, uses sensory images and comparisons, uses a thesaurus to choose effective wording)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses precise and descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas and supports different purposes (e.g., to stimulate the imagination of the reader, to translate concepts into simpler or more easily understood terms, to achieve a specific tone, to explain concepts in literature)

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

Level III [Grade: 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)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate and form viewpoints of visual media (e.g., evaluates the effectiveness of informational media, such as web sites, documentaries, news programs; recognizes a range of viewpoints and arguments; establishes criteria for selecting or avoiding specific programs)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)

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