Lesson Plans

Choose, Select, Opt, or Settle: Exploring Word Choice in Poetry

9 - 12
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions, plus time for student projects
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Students are prompted to challenge their notion of synonyms being words that "mean the same" by investigating key words in Robert Frost's poem "Choose Something Like a Star." First they build an understanding of connotation and register by categorizing synonyms for the title word choose. Then they develop lists of synonyms for words of their choice elsewhere in the poem and collaborate on a full analysis, focusing on the relationship between word choice and the elements of speaker, subject, and tone.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In "Register and Charge: Using Synonym Maps to Explore Connotation," Darren Crovitz and Jessica A. Miller argue that students' typical understanding of the word synonym as meaning "'a word that means the same as another word'" is "at best an oversimplification and at worst a way to end thinking about what words actually signify" (49).  They advocate for investigations into language and word groups to allow students to discover that "the subtlety of just how and to what extent [words are] similar makes all the difference when it comes to choosing the best word for a given purpose" (49). This lesson encourages students to explore the subtleties of shifting connotation and meaning effected by word choice.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Materials and Technology



Student Objectives

Students will

  • define synonym and consider the implications of multiple word meanings for poets attempting to choose the most effective word in a given situation.

  • investigate the similarities and differences within a number of word groups on the basis of connotation and register.

  • apply their understanding of connotation and register by articulating the relationships among word choice, speaker, subject, and tone in a poem.

Session One

  1. Begin the session by asking students to write down a definition of the word synonym and provide several examples. 

  2. Then arrange students in groups of three or four and ask them to share their definitions and examples. As they share, ask them to look for similarities and differences in their definitions and examples. Does anyone present examples that complicate or contradict the definition of another group member?

  3. Provide each group a copy of Coleridge's Definitions of Prose and Poetry and ask them to think about how their definitions and examples of synonyms relate to his definition of poetry.

  4. After giving groups some time to talk about Coleridge's Definitions, facilitate a discussion on how a poet might choose the "best word" when there may be several words in the English language that express the same, or nearly the same, idea or concept. 

  5. Guide students to an understanding that synonyms do express similar meanings but they also vary according to

    • connotation-the emotional or personal associations the word carries, beyond its literal definition

    • register-the level of formality or informality associated with the word

    • sound and rhythm-in poetry particularly, the way words sound and scan contribute to their appropriateness.
  6. Give students a few minutes to look at their examples of synonymous words and think about how they actually differ in regard to connotation and register. Ask students to share examples and explain the differences they see.

  7. Then inform students that they will be using an online tool to explore the ideas of synonyms, connotation, and register further by arranging words that mean to select but vary according to connotation and/or register.

  8. Direct students to the Word Matrix tool and ask them to select the word list for the concept selection.  In groups, they should arrange the words according to relative charge in connotation and formality of register.  Point out that there are not right or wrong answers to this activity.  More important than where the groups end up putting words is the conversations they have about what the words mean and how they relate to each other. They should indicate their thinking by double-clicking each word and writing a brief justification for its placement.

  9. Explain to students that they can access online resources and get more information about connotation and register by clicking on the orange question mark within the tool. They should use the back navigation within the tool (not the back arrow in the browser) to get back to their work within the matrix.

  10. Have students print their completed matrices.  Review them before the next session to gauge student understanding of connotation and register.

Session Two

  1. Explain to students that they are going to apply the understanding of connotation and register from the previous session.  Place on the overhead projector the Alternative Poem Titles.

  2. Give students a few minutes to read over the five alternatives.  Then ask students to talk about the different meanings conveyed in each of the titles based on the substitution of the first word.  Record their observations on the overhead to review later in the lesson.

  3. Distribute copies of Robert Frost's poem "Choose Something Like a Star." Also place a copy of the poem on the projector.

  4. After students have had time to read the poem silently to themselves, have two or three student volunteers read the poem aloud.

  5. As students read and re-read the poem, prompt students to look for the most important words in the poem—the words that seem very carefully chosen and that represent Coleridge's notion of the poetic "best word" for the moment. Words that are likely to interest students include fairest, loftiness, obscurity, taciturn, reserve, comprehend, aid, steadfast, mob, and staid.  The specific words that students choose are not crucial, as long as they focus on words with inherent richness (i.e., not night, end, or times).  Keep track of the words students are selecting by underlining or circling them on the text of the poem.

  6. Facilitate a basic discussion of speaker, subject, and tone as students begin constructing an understanding of the poem, using questions from the "Choose Something Like a Star" Discussion Questions as necessary.

  7. Tell students that they will have the opportunity to investigate the poetic appropriateness of one of the words they have chosen using the Word Matrix tool from the previous session.

  8. To prepare, put students in groups based on interest in a specific word and give them time to generate a list of ten or so synonyms for the word they have selected.  Provide students with access to dictionaries and thesauri to facilitate this process.

  9. Ask groups to submit their list of synonyms.  Review their choices and make any necessary suggestions prior the next session.

  10. Close the session by returning to the Alternative Poem Titles on the overhead projector.  Facilitate a brief discussion in which students compare their new knowledge of the poem to their initial impressions of the various possibilities. Model the thinking students will be asked to do in the next session by using an overhead transparency of the Choosing the Best Word handout to explain the effects of the word choose.

Session Three

  1. Return the student-generated lists of synonyms to groups and facilitate a re-reading of the poem, asking students to begin thinking about how each of the synonyms on their lists would contribute differently to the meaning of the poem.

  2. Then ask students to revisit the Word Matrix tool, this time populating a word list themselves, using the word from the poem as the concept header and the list of synonyms they generated in the previous session (including the original word) as the words on the movable tiles. They should choose "New concept" from the concept list to get this process started.

  3. Give students time to repeat the process from the first session, organizing the words by connotation and/or register.

  4. When they are finished placing the words and writing justifications, have students print one copy of the matrix for each member of the group plus a copy for you to review before the next session.

  5. Have students begin reflecting on their work by distributing and discussing the Choosing the Best Word handout, which asks them to review the completed matrix and write a brief paragraph explaining how the word Frost chose contributes to their understanding of speaker, subject, and/or tone in a way that is unique from the way any of the other words would.  This reflection may be continued as homework.  Students should be prepared to share their thoughts with a new group of students in the next session.

Session Four

  1. Using a "jigsaw" approach, reconfigure the groups by putting one member from each original group into a new heterogeneous group.  Each student will now serve as an expert on the word he or she helped to investigate in the previous session.

  2. Ask students to get out their completed matrices and Choosing the Best Word handout from the previous session.  Have the new groups meet and begin the analysis process by re-reading the poem.

  3. Then instruct each group member to summarize the investigation from the previous session and share relevant insights about the word Frost chose instead of any of the possible synonyms.

  4. At an appropriate time, distribute a copy of the Poetry Analysis Guide to each group.  Students should use this guide to organize the relationships they see between individual word choices and larger issues of the identity of the speaker, the subject of the poem, and the attitudes the speaker reveals toward the subject.

  5. Point out that there is no "correct" order for completing the guide.  Some groups may wish to begin with discussion of individual words and build upward; others may wish to begin with overall impressions of issues of meaning and then work to the word level.  Still other groups will find it useful to go back and forth between "big ideas" and evidence.  Groups should decide on the process that works best for them.

  6. Give students time to work together to build understanding of the poem.  Move from group to group to check for understanding and answer any questions that students may have.  Prompt student thinking by asking questions from the "Choose Something Like a Star" Discussion Questions as relevant.

  7. Depending on student readiness and your course goals, student groups can synthesize their learning in a number of ways. They can

    • write a traditional analytical essay investigating the relationship between word choice and meaning in the poem.

    • make a poster that uses images to convey the connections between language and meaning.

    • present a panel discussion in which one student acts as Robert Frost and others ask questions about the logic behind specific word choices.
  8. Share with students the Evaluation Guide for Poetry Analysis and determine criteria unique to each of the three projects.


  • Enhance students' understanding of Frost's poem by repeating the diction-based analytical process with John Keats's poem "Bright Star " (the source of the allusion within "Choose Something Like a Star"). Then use the Comparison and Contrast Guide and Map to facilitate a comparative analysis.

  • Share with students the word choice-based Frost parody "The Word Not Chosen."

  • Obtain a recording of the musical setting of "Choose Something Like a Star," part of the Frostiana song cycle by composer Randall Thompson. Have students listen for their chosen key words and describe the ways in which the music meets or challenges their expectations.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Provide formative feedback through the completed matrices, synonym lists, and any other student work prior to the project.

  • Use the Evaluation Guide for Poetry Analysis, adapted and modified to the needs of each different project, to provide additional feedback.

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