Thursday, September 13, 2012

Writing, Lesson Four


The fourth lesson was one I was looking forward to; for one thing, I've read quite a lot of Chinese students' writing by now, and I knew they needed it.  The title of the lesson, according to the outline Vera Song, our Chinese co-teacher, gave us, was "Diction."  That encompasses quite a lot; mostly about how to choose the right word for the situation.

I covered four main areas: formal vs. informal language, denotation vs. connotation, general vs. specific words, and figures of speech.  The formal vs. informal part was about the differences between slang and simple phrases used when emailing a friend, as compared to the conventions and vocabulary used in writing an academic paper.  I didn't belabor the point too much; I'll just have to rehash it all next semester when we're actually writing academic papers.

The second section was about the difference between the denotation and the connotation of the word.  If you've forgotten these terms sometime since the seventh grade, the denotation is the literal dictionary meaning, while the connotation is the feelings or emotions attached to the word, the nuances of the word.  For example, compare these pairs:

Famous vs. Notorious
Slim vs. Scrawny
Cheap vs. Inexpensive
Old Lady vs. Elderly Woman

While both would have a very similar definition if you looked them up in a dictionary,  we get a different vibe or impression if we hear each one.  Slim is attractive; scrawny is not.  My mother might react differently if I refer to the aroma of her cooking or the odor of her cooking.  Are you bossy or are you assertive?

Next we discussed general vs. specific vocabulary. For this, I introduced them to the thesaurus, which they'd never heard of before.  As you would expect, someone learning a second language has a limited vocabulary and tends to overuse some common verbs and adjectives (and phrases--I'm going to scream the next time I read the phrase "What's more..." in a journal entry.  Why do they have such an attachment to that phrase??). I have fun with this topic--we brainstormed different words to replace 'walk', and I acted them out.  I stomped, skipped, wandered, strolled, paced, trudged, and marched around to make a point about using specific words when writing to give the reader a better mental picture.

The book (which in general I quite like) went a little overboard in the figures of speech department; I guess it's good the students have the information as a reference, but it's really overkill at this point in their education.  Vera had suggested we skip this part, and I agreed--students need to focus more on learning to write clearly and directly and not get bogged down in a bunch of idioms that they usually don't use correctly anyhow.  Synecdoche, metonymy, oxymorons, and personification aren't a high priority, but if you teach them, the students will try to use them too often.

I did, however, slip in a bit of two commons figures of speech, the simile and the metaphor.  My students had heard these terms before, anyhow, so it was just a quick review.  I threw this bit in as a lead-in to an activity I wanted to do.

Although I teach writing, now and then I like to take a break and throw in something involving a different area of language (speaking, reading, listening).  With similes and metaphors, listening to Garth Brooks' "The River" is perfect.  The entire theme is a metaphor, and it's chock full of similes and metaphors, and a few spiritual references as well.  I gave the students a copy of the lyrics with words missing; they had to listen and fill in the blanks as they came to them.  I'm really not sure this sort of thing is valuable enough as far as language acquisition to be a regular thing, but it's fun for a break now and then.






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