R.CCR.4 — that’s the fourth College/Career Readiness anchor standard within the Reading strand of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA/Literacy — reads as follows:
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
This standard ties closely into one of the “Six Shifts” of the CCSS (“Academic Vocabulary”), so at least in the eyes of those who formulated the Shifts, this one’s important. Let’s break it down.
1. What are the technical (or denotative), connotative, and figurative meanings of words and phrases in a text?
Every time students or teachers read a text, we subconsciously answer these questions, but when students read grade-level appropriate complex texts (as defined by the CCSS’ complex text formula), these questions become more than subconscious. I’ve written elsewhere about how Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 contains an overabundance of figurative language ripe for R.CCR.4 picking, but what about questions of technical (denotative) meaning versus connotative meaning?
First of all, students can easily learn the meaning of denotation and connotation. Denotation is the technical or literal primary meaning of the word. Connotation is the idea or feeling that a word invokes for a person. For instance, Hiroshima, denotatively, is a city in Japan. Connotatively, however, the word Hiroshima changes based on your personal perspective. Though it might seem at first glance that connotation is outside of the control of the author, there are ways that the author can shape connotation for her readers. For example, consider these two sentences:
1. The megalomaniacal dictator dreamed of the day when his crimes against humanity would merit inclusion in lists of the greatest evils of the past centuries: the Holocaust, Rwanda, child sex trafficking, Hiroshima…
2. The Enola Gay flew the most important mission of World War II; because of its heroic attack on Hiroshima, countless American lives were saved.
In both sentences, the denotation of the word Hiroshima has not changed. However, since Sentence 1 lists Hiroshima with horrible crimes against humanity while Sentence 2 associates Hiroshima with words like important, heroic, and lives saved, the authors create starkly different connotations for the word. This is what we want students to be able to discern. In a given sentence, we can ask:
- What does this word literally mean? What is its denotation?
- What feelings and ideas does this word invoke? What is its connotation?
- How does the author use the words around our target word to shape its connotation?
2. How do specific word choices shape meaning or tone?
This second part of R.CCR.4 is closely linked with our discussion of the word Hiroshima, but let’s look at another example to illustrate it.
Consider Rudyard Kipling‘s “The White Man’s Burden,” which I use to introduce students to ideas we explore in our study of Things Fall Apart. When we read this poem, the main thing I want students to detect is Kipling’s tone when he refers to white colonial subjects. After I finish an initial out loud reading, I ask students to quickly write down their first reactions to specific lines in the poem (Where were you surprised, confused, impressed, etc.?), and then I ask them to talk to their partners about a specific line that they responded to (these are “text-based answers” that Shift #4, W.CCR.9, and SL.CCR.4 call for). These activities allow students to enter into the difficult poem. Now we are ready to began looking explicitly for specific word choices that shape tone.
Tone is the author’s attitude toward his subject, and to help my students detect Kipling’s attitude toward the white man’s “burden,” in our next reading I ask students to underline every word that Kipling uses to refer to the people within white imperial holdings. After this second reading, we quickly create a class list of references.
Here are some of the words Kipling uses:
- burden (ll. 1, 9, 17…)
- captives (l. 4)
- fluttered folk (l. 6)
- wild (l. 6)
- new-caught (l. 7)
- sullen peoples (l. 7)
- half-devil (l. 8)
- half-child (l. 8)
- Taken together, what do these word choices indicate about Kipling’s attitude toward colonial subjects?
- What adjectives would you use to describe Kipling’s tone toward colonial subjects?
- If such a poem were written about you and your people, how might you respond?