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Common Core Standards: ELA See All Teacher Resources

Grades 11-12

Reading RL.11-12.4

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

Breakin’ it Down:

For all its wordiness, this standard, at its most basic level, is about using good ol’ context clues. Most likely students have encountered versions of this standard throughout their academic career. However, when they get to the last two years of high school, they have to be able to not only figure out the meaning of words, but also decide how specific words influence or change the text. For example, we’ll be asking students to discuss how word choice contributes to tone or influences our interpretations of a text. They’ll also need to identify how word choice adds up to language that is particularly beautiful or musical, as in poetry.

Additionally, in the last years of high school, students should become masters of distinguishing figurative from literal language. This shouldn’t be too hard since their sarcasm skills are likely at peak performance levels, and sarcasm is just another form of non-literal language. The standard requires that students can interpret the meaning of figurative writing and identify connotative meanings or emotional resonances of words. Look out – that’s taking those familiar context clues to a whole new level.


The Daily Grind: Teaching the Standard

NOVICE: Nice and Easy. Define a word based on its context.

On college entrance exams, the context clues questions can be doozies! Questions try to trip students up by asking them to define words with multiple definitions. Most of the time, the most common definition is not the right answer, but it will be included as an answer choice to distract careless readers. Tricky, tricky, but you can prepare your students by creating similar multiple-choice questions with any text you have in class or find some released practice tests to keep students fresh. Also, mix it up by asking students to define or explain non-literal words or expressions. Analyzing an extended metaphor is another great way to work out those figurative language muscles.

Idioms can be an especially tricky piece of this standard for second language learners. Think about it, if English was not your first language, how confused would you be if someone told you to, “stop and smell the flowers” in, say, the middle of winter? Or, perhaps you’re complaining about a rude coworker and your friend advises you to, “Turn the other cheek.” What does this mean? If your students are still learning the literal meanings of English words, these idioms probably sound like complete nonsense to them. But fear not; idioms can actually be a lot of fun to teach. Ask students to research their origins, act them out charades style, or create cartoons that demonstrate the literal vs. figurative meanings. Shmoop predicts your students will have a good time and learn some surprising facts about the origins of our common expressions.

INTERMEDIATE: Words are windows to the soul.

This standard also requires that students are able to look at patterns in the word choice of an author to figure out the tone or theme being communicated. In any good piece of literature, students should scour the text for loaded language that points to the author’s attitude or reveals a central theme.

After students have compiled a list of the loaded language they found, ask them to explain how those words build the author’s tone and/or indicate the theme of the text. Remind students to consider the historical context of the writing when analyzing word choice.

Example: What is the effect of the author’s choice to continuously use the N-word to describe characters? How does this impact our reading of the text, and how might it relate to the overall theme?

ALL-STAR: Yikes! He called her a what?

Older texts are great for digging deep into an analysis of language. Find literature containing language that would now be shocking or inflammatory and have students analyze specific words as a way to uncover the beliefs and norms of an individual, society, or specific time period. Single words and phrases can uncover a wealth of biases or issues of social justice. This activity will take some research. Remember, students can’t make assumptions based on our understanding of these words today; they need to delve into the historical context to make appropriate inferences.

Quiz Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. He insisted that the night before the hurricane, his dreams had been filled with images of the house pulling apart and wind tearing at the walls. With the help of this magical intervention, he left town and narrowly avoided death.

    In lines above, the word intervention can most accurately be defined as...

    Correct Answer:

    an event that changes the development or outcome of a situation.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (C). In this case, the intervention is the dream which changes the character’s mind and helps him avoid the wrath of the storm. Answer (A) can’t be right because we have no idea of the amount of time between the dream, his departure, and the hurricane. Even though (B) might jump out at you because this is one possible meaning for the word, you have to pay attention to how the word is used in the text. This particular intervention isn’t being controlled by a group of people.

  2. When the report uncovered the scandal surrounding the politician, she carefully plotted the release of her story, knowing that she had the power to topple him.

    In the sentence above, the word topple means…

    Correct Answer:

    to defeat or overthrow.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (D). This is the only definition that makes sense. The word topple is being used to describe the loss of power that will happen when the reporter tells everyone about the politician’s scandal. Although the other answer choices are possible meanings for the word topple, none of those meanings make sense in this context. The reporter is not trying to cause the politician to literally lean over or fall; the meaning of topple here is more figurative.

  3. Excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an Ab'litionist to go and steal them.
    It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn't ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, "Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell." Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children -- children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm.

    The text uses unconventional spelling and grammar because…

    Correct Answer:

    the author wants to portray the narrator as coming from a unsophisticated or poorly educated background.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (A). The author uses words and phrases like Ab’litionist and hadn’t even done me no harm to show the unrefined speech patterns of the narrator. There is really nothing funny or witty about the dialogue, so (B) can’t be right. Answer (C) can’t be right because we never actually hear the dialect of Jim in dialogue. Answer (D) is wrong because an author’s words choice and style is always a creative choice. We cannot assume anything about the author personally based on his use of grammatically incorrect phrases like “hadn’t ever done me no harm”. Instead focus on why the author would make these choices and how they affect the story.

  4. Excerpt from The Awakening by Kate Chopin

    Mr. Pontellier finally lit a cigar and began to smoke, letting the paper drag idly from his hand. He fixed his gaze upon a white sunshade that was advancing at snail's pace from the beach. He could see it plainly between the gaunt trunks of the water-oaks and across the stretch of yellow chamomile. The gulf looked far away, melting hazily into the blue of the horizon. The sunshade continued to approach slowly. Beneath its pink-lined shelter were his wife, Mrs. Pontellier, and young Robert Lebrun. When they reached the cottage, the two seated themselves with some appearance of fatigue upon the upper step of the porch, facing each other, each leaning against a supporting post.

    “You are burnt beyond recognition,' he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her fawn sleeves above the wrists."

    The author’s vivid descriptions and figurative language lead the reader to infer that…

    Correct Answer:

    The husband is concerned only with the appearance of the wife and not her well-being.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (B). The description of her severe burn is followed by a metaphor comparing her to a piece of property in the eyes of the husband. How sweet. If you look back at the last paragraph, the adjectives used to describe the woman are strong and critical, so (A) can’t be right. Even though his wife has been out walking on the beach with another man, there is no evidence that there is an affair, so answer (C) makes a claim that isn’t supported by the text. Answer (D) is wrong because even though the characters are walking ‘slowly’ and ‘at a snail’s pace’, there is nothing in the description of the husband that implies he is annoyed with waiting for her.

  5. Excerpt from “A Double Barrelled Detective Story” by Mark Twain

    That night he rose at midnight and put on his clothes, then said to her,

    "Get up and dress!"

    She obeyed—as always, without a word. He led her half a mile from the house, and proceeded to lash her to a tree by the side of the public road; and succeeded, she screaming and struggling […]

    "You will be found—by the passing public. They will be dropping along about three hours from now, and will spread the news—do you hear? Good-by. You have seen the last of me."

    He went away then. She moaned to herself: "I shall bear a child—to him! God grant it may be a boy!"

    The farmers released her by-and-by—and spread the news, which was natural. They raised the country with lynching intentions, but the bird had flown. The young wife shut herself up in her father's house; he shut himself up with her, and thenceforth would see no one. His pride was broken, and his heart; so he wasted away, day by day, and even his daughter rejoiced when death relieved him.

    Then she sold the estate and disappeared.

    In the passage above, which line contains figurative language?

    Correct Answer:

    “They raised the country with lynching intentions, but the bird had flown.”

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (C). Remember, you are looking for the line that uses figurative language, like a simile or a metaphor. In this line, the bird represents the husband, who has left town to avoid punishment. Coward? We think so. All of the other answer choices are literal, not figurative.