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Students speak and listen to tones of voice with intuitive skill, but their reading and writing is often tone-deaf. When students speak a sentence or short passage in a variety of tones, they explore the relationship between meaning and sound. When students read for tone, they are reading for meaning that is both literal -- what is the speaker saying? -- and analytical -- what is the speaker's attitude, and when and to what degree does it shift? In reading, writing, speaking and listening, tone is much more than a literary and rhetorical concept; it is a fundamental tool of human expression.

The Tone Wheel
Before introducing students to tier two tone vocabulary words, challenge them to chart their own tone words for some of the most fundamental human emotions, guided by this tone wheel and tone chart. Click here for a user-friendly Tone Wheel and Chart handout.

A Tone Vocabulary
Students often lack the precise language needed to express degrees of emotion in the texts they read and write. A list of modifiers can be a way-in to the subtle and complex language of tone. Click here for a collection of Tone Vocabulary modifiers aligned with the twelve human emotions listed on the tone wheel and chart above.

Text and Subtext
From Shakespeare Set Free, edited by Peggy O'Brien
Text is what a speaker or character says. 
Subtext is what we imagine the speaker is thinking and feeling as s/he speaks the text.
Introduce students to the concept of text and subtext by displaying several common expressions followed by a short list of possible subtexts, and ask for speakers to play with the possibilities of expression.

    "Don't go!"
          I command you to stay.
        Please stay, if you care for me.
        It's not safe out there!
        I warn you -- you'll be sorry.

    "What time is it?"
    "It's eleven o'clock."
       Q: When is this class going to end?
        A: The bell is about to ring!

        Q: We've completely lost track of time.
        A: We're already late for class.

        Q: How much longer do I have to live?
        A: Exactly one hour: you'll be executed at midnight.

After this playful warm-up, identify excerpts from a complex text in which an understanding of the author's or speaker's attitude is essential. Display the first quote and read it aloud in a monotone. If necessary, decode difficult vocabulary, then lead students in a series of possible readings. This line is from Shakespeare's King Lear:

I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad. (2.2.391)

Read this line as if you are MAD!
Read this line as if you are PLEADING!
Read this line as if you don't take your daughter seriously and you are MOCKING her! 

After students have experimented with the dynamic tension between language and meaning, ask them to identify the tools of vocal expression and list their answers. The list your students generate will probably include:

        Volume (from whisper to shout; even silence can be a vocal tool)
        Pitch (from low to high)
        Pace (from slow to fast)
        Pause (hesitating before a word)

Reading for Tone:

Writing with Tone: Students rewrite emotionally neutral sentences so that they convey a particular tone. Students become editors by reading a passage and deleting/revising it to remove tone.