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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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Onomatopoeia in the Classroom

You’re an English teacher and your next unit is on figurative language. Similes and metaphors usually come easily to students, but what do you do with onomatopoeia? How do you teach a word most people can’t even spell?

As difficult as the spelling is, it is often the use of onomatopoeia that stumps most students. The rest of this lesson will detail different strategies to use to introduce the concept and purpose of onomatopoeia.

Introducing Onomatopoeia

When teaching a new concept, the first task is always to determine how to introduce the idea. If you have already established the concept of figurative language, the perfect way to lead into onomatopoeia is via imagery, which is descriptive language that appeals to the five senses. Since onomatopoeia occurs when a word is structured in a way to imitate the sound of the object, this can be directly related to imagery appealing to sounds.

This idea of imitating the object itself may be what your students struggle with most. This is where showing plenty of examples will work well. Ask your students to mimic a bee. After they buzz for a minute or two, explain how the double ‘z’ in the word ‘buzz’ actually sounds like a bee. You can do the same thing with how the double ‘s’ in ‘hiss’ mimics a snake. Other examples include ‘cuckoo’, ‘sizzle’ and ‘pop.’ Use these examples, or others of your own, and have students say these words aloud. Then, individually or in groups, they can analyze the sounds of the letters in each example to see how the word imitates the sound.

In addition, you might want to note certain sound words that would not be onomatopoeic. Some students may think that all words relating to sound are then onomatopoeic. This is not always the case. If someone remarked about a loud noise, the word ‘loud’ is not onomatopoeic, since it doesn’t mimic its meaning or a sound. Students should be able to differentiate between actual examples of onomatopoeia and other words related to sound.

Identifying Onomatopoeia

Once the concept has been introduced, move on to identifying onomatopoeia in poetry or other writing. Poems may contain the best examples, as they are usually rampant with figurative language and imagery.

You can split students into groups or design an individual task in which students must identify words they believe are onomatopoeic. At the start, use poems with obvious examples. For instance, The Bells is a poem by Edgar Allen Poe with great examples of onomatopoeia.

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle

In the icy air of night!

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Your goal is for students to realize the words ‘tinkle’, ‘jingling’, and ‘tinkling’ are all examples of onomatopoeia. Be sure to use multiple poems to practice identifying onomatopoeia. The poet Shel Silverstein has multiple poetry books, all full of examples of figurative language, especially onomatopoeia. In addition, his poems are often light-hearted and fun, with simple content. Even older students will enjoy some fun poetry they may remember from their childhood with which to practice identifying onomatopoeia.

In addition, you can have students use different colored markers to indicate words appealing to different senses. For instance, color all words appealing to smell blue, and all words that are onomatopoeic and/or appealing to sound, green. With each sense as a different color, the array of colors on the poem will become a striking visual for onomatopoeia and imagery.

Using Onomatopoeia and Assessment

Once students can identify onomatopoeia, move onto the purpose of it. Why should poets and writers use words that mimic specific sounds? Ask this question using the poems students highlighted or any other examples. Have each student or group respond. Write the possibilities on the board or make some sort of chart to record their reasons. Hopefully, through class discussion, you will lead them to conclude how onomatopoeia adds to the vividness of the poem and helps the reader feel like he is experiencing the situation first-hand.

The final aspect to teaching any concept is the assessment, which is the evaluation of student learning. Once students understand how onomatopoeia can bring a poem to life, you should have students use it in their own poetry. Give them scenarios with a lot of sound, like a football game. Or have students think of other scenarios with a lot of sounds. They should brainstorm about the sounds they would hear in that location, and finally write a poem using examples of onomatopoeia. These poems can be read aloud, while the other students guess which location each poem is about.

Of course, you could also give a quiz or test on onomatopoeia alone or included with other figurative language. The best way is to use another poem overflowing with examples of imagery. Then the quiz will ask to identify examples of onomatopoeia and explain why the poet used it in that poem.

Lesson Summary

To review, onomatopoeia, which is a word structured in a way as to imitate the sound of the object itself, is a type of imagery, or descriptive language that appeals to the five senses. Teaching this concept to students can be a tricky task, so follow these steps to help with the process.

  • Introduce figurative language, specifically imagery. Then relate it to onomatopoeia, using plenty of examples like buzz and hiss.
  • Help students practice identifying it in poetry. Use many examples, highlighting all the instances of imagery and onomatopoeia using different colors.
  • Discuss the purpose of it, stressing how using specific sound words can help the reader relate to the content of the poem. Then have students use it in their own poetry or writing.
  • Create an assessment, or evaluation of student learning, through a poem with plenty of examples of imagery. Ask students to explain the use of it for that specific poem.
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