The purpose of the activity
In this activity, learners explore the ways in which words work together. In particular, and without using the technical terms, the aim is to develop an understanding of collocations, denotations and connotations. Learners will be able to reflect this understanding of the ways in which words can be used for different purposes as they listen and speak. Studying the uses of words with different associations can help develop learners’ awareness of bias or point of view.
This activity can be split to cover two sessions, one for collocations, and one for denotations and connotations. Make the activity relevant to learners’ course or work situations wherever possible.
The teaching points
- Some words are often found together and the meaning of each is influenced by this pairing: this is known as collocation. Examples include, red hot, white wine, white lie, ride a bike, drive a car.
- Some words name things (denotation) but also have common associations (connotation). Examples include the denotation pig to name a kind of animal and the connotation which may imply someone is dirty or greedy.
- Understanding these uses of words will help listeners understand subtleties of meaning (including bias) and can help speakers use (or avoid using) words with layers of meaning.
The guided teaching and learning sequence
1. Ask learners what they understand “white” to mean in these expressions: white hot, white lie, white wine, white wash. Explain that in English, the meaning of a word (white) can change depending on the word it sits beside. In these examples, the meaning of white changes to help describe heat, an untruth, a type of wine, or the colour of paint (or a cover-up!).
2. Ask learners to think about the words that can follow good. Share the examples and help learners to see that “good” means slightly different things in each example (good meal, good boy, good night’s sleep, good grief).
3. Do the same with fast (fast food, fast car, stuck fast) – and prompt the learners to notice that we don’t say “quick food”, “quick car” or “stuck quick”.
4. Continue exploring words that go together in other ways, for example we usually say we’re off to buy “fish and chips” even if we’re going to have a paua fritter and chips. Further examples could include: I drive a car but I ride a bike; He had a chronic illness but an ongoing interest in sport; You wipe your nose but clean your teeth and polish your shoes (they are all similar actions); I can buy a bar of soap and a block of cheese; rancid butter but rotten bananas.
See http://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/collocations-lists.htm for lists of collocations.
5. Now discuss the differences between what a word might mean literally and what associations the same word might have. As an example, use the word “pig” and ask learners to share their ideas about the associations it might have. Another example is “student” – it literally means a person who is studying, but it has other meanings associated with it, not all of them positive.
6. Discuss the ways in which words can be deliberately chosen by speakers because of their associations. For example, discuss the associations of man, hunk, babe, bloke, youth and gentleman. Another example is the words used to describe people with disabilities: handicapped, retarded, crippled, spastic, differently-abled. Discuss the implications of our choices – why would we use different words? What difference does it make?
7. Discuss how we use our knowledge of words to help us be critical listeners and thoughtful speakers. As part of this discussion, bring out the ways in which word usage changes over time and reflects society’s values.
Learners can take note of other, similar examples of word use they hear or use in their workplaces, on television and in the community.
Use the cline activity described in Teaching Adults to Read with Understanding: Using the Learning Progressions adapting it by ordering words according to specific criteria. For example, most to least formal (from “Good morning” to “Gidday” or from “How lovely” to “Choice”), most to least intimate (from “Mr Smith” to “Hotlips”), from most to least polite (“Please may I have…” to “Gimme that”).
Explore with the learners the words we use in some specific areas such as:
- gender (What words do we use to refer to women? How are they different from the ways we refer to men?)
- age (What are some of the words we use to refer to a child? A person in their teens? An old person? Why are some more respectful than others?)
This discussion can lead learners to an understanding of the power of the words we use and how they can affect the ways in which we think about other people.
See also the activity Using formal and informal language.