Teaching Tone

Getting students to be aware of tone in writing can be challenging, but I have found that taking them from the familiar to the unfamiliar is a great way to introduce tone as an element for analysis.

We start with a clear definition of tone and a long list of the words that express tone. The kids can take turns reading a word out loud putting the emotion in their voice that matches the meaning if they’re feeling brave.

Then the media comes in. Every student has a developed taste in music, so getting them to comment on the tone in songs is really fun. The challenge is for them to use language as accurate as they can to describe the complexity of the emotions in the songs. The activity can move from a more familiar sound to something less familiar. Or, the students can be the ones to choose the music, and the rest of the class have to describe the tone. There are so many ways to vary the activity to give the students more engagement in tone analysis.

I like to start with U2 because their sound is so complex and often kids have heard some of their music. The song “No Line on the Horizon,” album title the same, is yearning, dreamy and powerful. Most kids respond well to it. “Get on Your Boots” works well for a more gritty pulsing sound (but watch out for the meaning–depending on your school).

Here is an alternate, the theme song for the movie Borne Legacy called “Extreme Ways.”

I follow the contemporary music with Mozart’s Requiem. The tracks I use are: 1) Rex Tremendae, because the Rex jumps out so powerfully, and as an expression of grief, you can’t get much more dramatic.

2) Lacrimosa Dies Illa, because of the fast shifts in tone from morose to angelic, which opens the conversation to times when authors switch tone in texts.

By this time the students are relaxed and have the sense that they can hear tone and have words to describe it. To drive it home, the kids could choose the songs and lead the lesson.

For less advanced students, the teacher could limit the words used to describe the tone, print them out on cards, and have the kids match the words to the songs as they are played. My low level ESL kids were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet during the lesson–they loved it, because it was so accessible. There are so many ways to use music to understand tone.

The next step is to move the analysis to the written word. For more, see Teaching Tone II.

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