How to teach positive and negative connotations

Summary: Teaching tips for presenting and practicing positive and negative words and expressions

One of the most difficult but most vital things to know about a word is if it is positive and negative. This is something that can vary from language to language and cause huge misunderstandings, as anyone who has struggled with “notorious”/ “famous” could tell you. Connotation is worth teaching in every class sooner or later, even if it is just pointing out that “So so” is a negative answer to “How was your weekend?” (not a neutral one like “Okay” can be). Connotation ties in particularly well with the topics of:

  • writing reviews
  • personality
  • appearance
  • arts and media
  • talking about your week and weekend
  • problems and solutions/ recommendations
  • likes and dislikes
  • gradable and extreme adjectives
  • food and drink
  • opposites
  • using dictionaries
  • guessing meaning from context
  • contrastive and additive linking words
  • paragraphing
  • telling anecdotes
  • writing reports
  • academic writing (especially phrases for quoting sources)
  • giving feedback
  • exam listening (FCE Listening, etc)


What students need to know about positive and negative connotations

Most of the time students just need to be told that “determined” is positive but “stubborn” is (generally) negative. However, you should also spend some time making sure that they can find that information out for themselves from dictionaries, Google searches, etc. It is also worth pointing out that “fat” is more negative than “chubby”, etc. This is something that is more difficult to find out from a dictionary, unless then words are gradable and extreme adjective pairs like “tasty” and “delicious”, something that can be worked out from accompanying adverbs like “fairly”.

It is also worth eliciting, getting students to discover or explaining the combination of “a little” with negative words and “not so” with positive words for a similar meaning (not “a little handsome” X).


How to present positive and negative connotations

Working out connotation from what the words and expressions are made from

Expressions like “like a fish out of water” and “in seventh heaven” give clear positive or negative images and so their connotations can easily be worked out. In contrast, it can be very difficult to work out if a single word is positive, negative or neutral. The most common situation where it is possible is when the word includes an affix (prefix or suffix) which is (usually) positive or negative, as in:

  • under- (undercooked, etc)
  • over- (overexposed, etc)
  • -able/-ible (understandable, etc)

Students can usually work out these connotations given a few examples, and then generalise from that.

With higher level classes it could also be worth doing something on sounds that sound negative to native speakers and so tend to be negative words like “scr-” in “scream”, “scratch”, “sl-” in “slimy” and “slippery”, etc.


Working out connotation from context

For most other unknown words, we can only guess the connotation from the context. Luckily, context can be incredibly useful in guessing connotations. In fact, students can often guess the connotation of words whose actual meaning isn’t clear, as long as they are given in a sentence, paragraph or whole text.

Students can usually guess connotation from context if they have a sentence with a word which they already know well plus a word which they don’t know the connotation of yet, linked by words like “and” or “but”. “And” links words with the same connotation (“tall, dark and handsome”, etc). The same is true of other expressions like “and”, including “also”, “In addition” and “too”. “But” links opposite connotations (e.g. “friendly but moody”). Equivalents to “but” include “However”, “In contrast” and “On the other hand”. There are also a few linking words like “(Un)fortunately,…” which actually show the connotation of the following words (not just their relationships to other words). These three kinds of linking words are surprisingly common, but are not always included or used in such a consistent way. You therefore might want to rewrite a text to add more such expressions if you want students to work out the connotations from context in this way.

An easier way of giving some kind of context is to make a list of paired positive and negative words or phrases, with one half of each pair being a word or expression that they already know the connotation of (or can easily guess from the prefixes, etc). After being asked to label one of each pair with a plus sign and the other with a minus sign, students should then be tested on the new words another way. For example, they could be given the same list without the more familiar words in each pair and then label each line with “+” or “-”. This works best if the paired phrases have something in common such as being opposites, having similar meanings, being on the same topic, having similar spellings, or having similar pronunciations.

Something similar can also be done with words of the same kind of connotation grouped together, e.g. “harassed”, “stressed” and “had it up to here” in one section. This works particularly well if you put opposites which have the same connotation (“well built” and “slim”, etc) in one section, and then contrast with that in the next section (“flabby” and “skin and bones”, etc).

Especially with higher level students, you can also get them to use other clues such as a whole paragraph being about positive points. The genre of the text can also help students guess connotations from what kind of connotations they are likely to find there (mainly positive in an advertising blurb, mainly negative in a letter of complaint, etc).

A similar possibility is to give students the words and expressions to use in contexts which match particular connotations, then ask them to remember that. For example, you could ask students to discuss their ideas for problems like “A forgettable motto” and “Uncooperative staff”. Then ask them to discuss what they think about suggested solutions like “A catchy jingle” and “More perks”. Then give them a mixed list of both kinds of words (“catchy, forgettable, perks, uncooperative”, etc) and ask them to classify them.


Connotation in reviews

Paragraphing, linking words and context are often combined in reviews. For example, with a bit of searching you should be able to find a one-star review, two-star review, etc for the same thing from Amazon where the language and opinions really seem to match the number of stars (not true as often as you might think!) You can get students to rank the whole reviews by how positive they are, then ask them to underline words which seem to be positive and negative in those reviews in order to check the ranking language and to start to learn the connotations of those expressions.


Linking connotation to previous or future language points

Especially if you have covered points which you could revise at the same time, you can introduce positive and negative connotations with a list dictation. Read out lists of words which have one thing in common, for example all uncountable, all extreme adjectives, all about education or all with negative prefixes, letting students guess the similarity whenever they think they know. Then do the same with a list of words with positive connotations or a list of words with negative connotations. You can also do the same with words with the same connotation and other things in common such as the same topic.

Another way of linking from other points to connotations is to ask students to try to remember if words etc that they have studied have the same or different meanings, starting with big differences in meaning and moving onto subtler differences such as words which only vary by connotation.


Connotation and intonation

If you do a list dictation or The Same or Different with the teacher reading out the examples, you can also give them the biggest hint of all to guess from, which is positive-sounding and negative-sounding intonation.


How to practise positive and negative connotations

Positive and negative connotations storytelling

For me, the top choice for a practice for this point is almost always storytelling activities such as taking turns telling anecdotes. Give students a selection of positive and negative words that could be used to tell one kind of story, e.g. a fairy tale or the story of someone’s life or career, preferably on cards. Students work together to make an interesting story with lots of difficulties, overcoming those difficulties, and a happy or sad ending. In the next stage they can then tell that story to other groups, guess other people’s stories from looking at the cards which they chose and what order they are in, vote on the best story, etc.


Positive and negative connotations debates/ competitions

Students can also compete, by taking the positive side or negative side of something such as “this area” and taking turns trying to come up with more and more things to say on that side.


Positive and negative in problems and solutions speaking

Especially if you have dealt with problems and solutions in the presentation stage (as suggested above), you could also get students to use a mixed pack of positive and negative words and expressions to use to make up their own problems and solutions.


Positive and negative reviews dice game

Reviews can also be used in the practice stage, for example getting students to roll a dice and use the right number of positive and negative expressions to be that positive (if they rolled a six), that negative (if they rolled a one), or that mixed (if they rolled a three, etc).


Positive and negative words pairwork dictations

Students try to match positive words on the Student A worksheet with similar or opposite negative words on the Student B worksheet, firstly by reading out the words with the intonation that seems to match their meanings, then by reading out the sentences given to show context to check.


Positive and negative connotations reversi

For the minority of students who need very intensive practice of a particular group of words with positive and negative connotations, you can use memory games such as Reversi. Make cards which have words on both sides which have a relationship related to connotation, such as:

  • Opposites with the same connotation
  • Opposites with opposite connotations (“stressed” and “relaxed”, etc)
  • Near synonyms but with different connotations

Students take turns guessing the other side of and turning over the check as many cards as they can, stopping whenever what they say isn’t the same as the other side of the card. Any cards guessed correctly stay the other way up, so that the next person has to convert them in the opposite direction. The winner can be:

  • the person with the greatest number of correct guesses added up over the length of the game
  • the person with the greatest number of correct guesses in a row (at any point during the game, e.g. 13 cards in a row with no mistake in the 5th round, when no one else managed more than 11 cards in a row)
  • the first person to do all the cards in a row with no mistake


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Written by Alex Case for

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