Methods of Teaching Onomatopoeia

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Teaching figurative language techniques can be a challenging task for some English teachers. This lesson specifically discusses methods and activities to teach students the concept of onomatopoeia.

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.

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