Down and Dirty Diction

My AP Language and Composition students have been waist deep, nay, armpit deep in literary analysis these past few weeks. Of the three types of essays my AP’ers will write, this is always the one that gives them the most trouble. Students are asked to read a piece of prose and then write an essay in which they analyze how the rhetorical strategies the author uses help to achieve his/her purpose.

Though students are familiar with literary analysis, they are often most familiar with analysis that gets at the “what” as opposed to the “how.” I explain to them that deep literary analysis involves what the author is trying to achieve with the writing, as opposed to only what the content itself suggests.

Once we get into it, students often have a lot to say, but lack the developed analysis skills to artfully communicate what they’re seeing. We work to expand and deepen the analysis with specifics.

Early in our study of analysis, we utilize two key acronyms to hone our craft study. DIDLS (which makes everyone giggle) and SOAPS.


Amelia provides suggestions to a peer on diction analysis of an AP practice essay

Students can use analysis of Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Speaker to provide context to their essays and justify the purpose sandwiched in the middle of this acronym. Then, in terms of which rhetorical strategies we can analyze that achieve that purpose, we jump into Diction, Imagery, Details, Language (as in figurative), and Syntax. Our discussions focus on adding the elements together to comment on, for example, how diction contributes to imagery, pathos is built through details, or how various elements create an overall tone for the piece.

Of all the DIDLS (mmwahahahah) components, however, diction is the one that students struggle with year after year. Case in point, a claim about diction submitted on a post-it note after our first look (without direction from me) at diction:

The author uses diction to achieve his purpose.
Ok…You’ve zeroed in on one element. Good. But you are telling me the author uses words. I’m not sure that’s exactly the specificity the AP readers are looking for.

To combat (or encourage, if you are feeling friendlier) such insight, I’ve developed several components to diction study.

  1. Detail with students what their options are. They need to be specific in relating how the diction is used, so we start with something basic like fill in the blank.

    The author uses __________ diction in order to ____________. 

  2. Then, they need the tools to fill in that first blank. I provide a list of terms that could be used to describe diction. We define a few they are curious about, discuss some they are already familiar with, and then choose several to brainstorm around.

    Nostalgic might be used when the author wants to fondly remember the past. 
    Patriotic would be found in political speeches or Fourth of July gatherings. 

  3. I then have students practice focusing their own writing using these words. During quick writes, students choose a specific type of diction and purpose, then set off to match the two in a quick piece on a topic of their choosing.

    Technical diction to write about a process for downloading an app. 
    Curt diction to decline an invitation to prom with a jerkface.

  4.  Next up, my students are going to be analyzing some actual AP prompts specifically for diction and for homework, locating an editorial they can analyze for the same purpose. We’ll be doing quick 1 minute speeches that consist of analysis of the editorials purpose and specific words used to achieve it.

Other practice comes from analysis of diction in their independent novels, some work with Nancy Dean’s Voice Lessons on diction, and quick table discussions around taking famous lines with specific diction and changing that diction to completely change the connotation or meaning of the selection.

It was the laziest of times, it was the craziest of times. (A modern diction twist to reflect senioritis in the classroom).


Amanda provides feedback to a peer on her AP Analysis practice 

All in all, students are swimming in words and I love it.

It’s how this happens: 

The author uses diction to achieve his purpose.
Ok…you are telling me the author uses words…
The author uses colloquial diction to achieve his purpose.
Better…the specificity of the diction gets you closer, but why use that type of diction?
The author uses colloquial diction to talk with his son about sex.
Interesting. Why would the author want to do that? 
The author of this passage, a father who wants to connect with his teenage son, uses colloquial diction to try and ease the awkward nature of a conversation about sex. Not surprisingly, this attempt to be super hip backfires when his son realizes this false “cool” is not at all hip, let alone effective.

How do you help students explore an author’s use of diction? Please share some ideas in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.



5 thoughts on “Down and Dirty Diction

  1. […] but less perilous than the nose) in literary analysis. I wrote last week about our journey with diction analysis, as we got down and dirty with how an author conveys meaning with […]


  2. Lisa Dennis February 7, 2017 at 7:41 am Reply

    I smile every time I say it. Hehehehehe.
    And thank you, friends.


  3. Shana Karnes February 7, 2017 at 6:10 am Reply

    Thanks for reminding me how to diddle wth DIDLS, Lisa!

    “Nay” was my favorite word in this post. I always love your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kathryn February 6, 2017 at 10:45 pm Reply

    “In order to” is a great phrase because it forces students to think of purpose. What’s been more awkward for my students but also helpful is to give them a fill in the blank use toulmin’s ideas.

    “Since ___(evidence)_______ therefore/then _______(claim)____ because ____(warrant)______.

    This is a total frankenstein phrase and is awkward, but also useful. Today’s practice with this came out like this:

    “Since the Declaration of Sentiments uses the third person pronounce “she” instead of “us”, therefore Mott and Stanton emphasize a sense of authority and universality in their writing because “she” creates a sense of an objective outside person where “we” can be perceived as only applying to a small group.

    It’s completely imperfect, but gives my students a nudge to provide justification where they might rely merely on device-drive-throughs where they just name what is present as opposed to why it’s there.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Amy Rasmussen February 6, 2017 at 5:12 pm Reply

    Boom! I love all of this. We’ve upped the game with rhetorical analysis in my classroom, and my students are struggling. We have two main issues: summary vs analysis, and a lack of vocabulary necessary to describe tone. You’ve given me some ideas here. I’ll let you know how they go.

    Liked by 1 person

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