The use of informal language and phrases in our writing and speaking is simply part of our culture. Idioms, slang, understatements, and hyperboles help characterize language by region, time period, and groups of people. Language, though, often benefits from precision, and appropriate word choice helps articulate what a writer truly wants to say without resorting to overused, trendy, and often inaccurate phrases. In this lesson, students will examine pieces of writing for modern hyperbole or inappropriate word choice and practice using precise language for the appropriate audience and purpose. This lesson can be completed in 1–2 class periods, depending on whether you decide to facilitate the optional class discussion.
How can word choice affect communication?
Students work in pairs to match images with definitions.
Students work in the same pairs to match images with new definitions, leading to a discussion of appropriate word choice.
Students work with a handout of commonly overused or misused words and phrases, adding their own examples and suggesting alternatives.
Students work in pairs to complete a CER strategy in which they provide a claim, evidence, and reasoning to avoid a particular word choice and instead choose more precise language.
Students practice talking about word choice with their peers through a "Yes, Because..." activity.
Lesson Slides (attached)
Matching Set 1 and Matching Set 2 (attached; one copy of each per pair of students; printed, cut out, and placed in a separate envelope per set)
Matching Set 1 and Matching Set 2 answer keys (attached)
Overused and Misused Words handout (attached; one per student)
CER handout (attached; one per student)
Begin by telling students that they will be completing a challenge with a partner (or small group depending on class size). Pass out the Matching Set 1 cards to each pair or group and explain that the task is to match each image with the definition that fits most closely. Do not offer any hints or suggestions right now; just encourage students to do their best! This is a quick challenge, and it should take no more than 5 minutes.
After students have made their matches, hold up each image card and ask which definitions were used to describe each. It is likely that different pairs of students will have used different definitions for each of the pictures. Hold a brief discussion during this process, and ask how students chose the definitions to go with their pictures.
Collect the Matching Set 1 cards from students before proceeding to the next activity.
Now, pass out the Matching Set 2 cards. Tell pairs that they will be doing another round of matching with the same images, but this time with new definitions. Give them a short amount of time to do these new matches, and host the same discussion as with Matching Set 1. Hold up each image card. Which definitions did they choose? Why and how did they choose each definition to go with each picture?
Collect the Matching Set 2 cards.
Now that they have completed two rounds of image and definition matches, ask students in which round they were able to find a description for each image more quickly. Why?
Revisit the definitions from Matching Set 1, and reveal the words (epic, amazing, fantastic, unbelievable). Ask the question, Is pizza epic?
Share with students the definition of the word epic (noun: relating to a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation; adjective: extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size and scope). Point out that this term falls into the category of terms that we have come to use frequently in our language without understanding or considering their true definitions. The same case can be made for many other words with which students are familiar. Ask them to share other words that are used frequently and might be considered overused or misused. Write these words on the board.
Transition the conversation to focus on communicating for the appropriate audience and purpose. Explain that hyperbole, slang, and idioms are appropriate when talking to friends and in casual conversation, but then ask for some examples of situations that students can think of where word choice needs to be precise.
Pass out copies of the Overused and Misused Words handout. This handout lists several words with examples of when their use might be inaccurate and other word choice options to consider instead.
Consider reviewing the first example (actually) as a class and holding a discussion about the following:
Why does precision in word choice matter? (Hint: Go back to or introduce the essential question, "How can word choice affect communication?")
For what audience would you be particularly careful about your word choice?
For what purpose would you be particularly careful about your word choice?
Have students work in pairs (or independently, if you prefer) to review the next three examples (amazing/awesome, basically, and epic) and work toward an understanding of the "Consider That:" and "Consider Using:" columns.
After students have had a brief time to reflect on these commonly overused and misused words, ask them to complete the back of the handout and identify four more examples of overused and/or misused words and phrases. For each word or phrase that they include, they should explain the issue with the word choice in the "Consider That:" column and suggest alternatives to the word or phrase in the "Consider Using:" column.
Once students have had time to complete the Overused and Misused Words handout by adding four of their own examples, they will engage in a CER activity. In this activity, students are asked to justify their thinking by establishing a claim, evidence, and reasoning.
Assign students a number from 1–8 to determine which word from their Overused and Misused Words handout they will focus on. (Or, assign numbers from 5–8 to include only the students' examples.) As an alternative, if you are looking for a way to ensure that your students can share their examples in an orderly fashion without feeling self-conscious about their responses, consider trying the Airplane Landing strategy.
Pass out copies of the CER handout, and ask students to complete the following:
Write a claim about why the word or phrase should be reconsidered due to overuse or misuse.
Back up the claim with evidence (from the "Consider That" and "Consider Using" columns).
Support the evidence with reasoning. (Why do the alternatives for this word or phrase more appropriately suit a particular purpose or audience?)
Ask students to share their CER responses in small groups or in a whole-class discussion.
As an evaluation for this lesson, consider using the Yes, Because ... strategy. Have students line up in two even rows facing each other, so that each participant is facing a partner in the opposite row. Start with the pair of students at the beginning of the line. Students hold their completed Overused and Misused Words handouts. One participant in the pair speaks, and then the other responds. The dialogue should sound something like this:
Partner 1: "The word 'amazing' should be reconsidered in word choice."
Partner 2: "Yes, because it is overused, and we could use a more specific word that fits the situation better."
After one pair of students is done, the next pair of students facing each other in the line continues with a new example from the handout. Examples can be repeated as new evidence or reasoning is introduced.
The Yes, Because ... activity and the optional discussion serve as formative evaluation for this lesson.
K20 Center. (n.d.). Airplane landing. Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/7b4de59085f566aa097814b8c00331b1
K20 Center. (n.d.). Claim, evidence, reasoning (CER). Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/d9908066f654727934df7bf4f506fc09
K20 Center. (n.d.). Yes, because ... Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/fc74060730ea745c8c4f356aa204e4f3
Petras, R. & Petras, K. (2018). That doesn't mean what you think it means: The 150 most commonly misused words and their tangled histories. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. New York: Penguin Books
Stillman, J. (2015, December 14). 20 words you've been butchering for years. Inc. https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/the-20-most-abused-words-in-the-english-language.html