Onomatopoeia: A Figurative Language Minilesson

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
50 minutes
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Students are introduced to the literary device of onomatopoeia and explore how the technique adds to a writer's message. Students brainstorm a list of onomatopoeic words and then find examples of the technique in Edgar Allan Poe's poem, “The Bells.” Once they find examples, students reflect on how the onomatopoeic words add to the poem and the writer's message. They then apply their knowledge of the technique by choosing sound words in response to sounds they hear in an online tool. Following the lesson, students can look for additional examples of the literary device in their reading or look for places to add onomatopoeia to their writing.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In his analysis of exemplary writing by first year college students, Derek Soles considers expert opinions on the use of figurative language. He cites opinions that selective and effective use of figurative language is important in good writing. For example: "Fulwiler and Hayakawa, similarly, advise their readers to use figurative language, 'not for ornament or embellishment, but to help readers understand your meaning' (449)."

This lesson uses the mini-lesson format to explicitly teach one technique of figurative language at a time when it best serves students' needs. Kylene Beers explains the technique of mini-lessons in her When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12: "Minilessons are short (as little as five minutes or as much as fifteen minutes), focused lessons that can be delivered to the entire class or a portion of the class. The purpose of the minilesson is to clarify something or to provide information about something that students need to be applying in that day's work." (58)

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

  • 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.




Student Objectives

Students will

  • learn the definition of the literary device of onomatopoeia.

  • explore how the figurative language adds to a writer's message.

  • identify examples of onomatopoeia in literary texts.

Instruction & Activities

  1. Project the definition of onomatopoeia using an overhead or LCD projector, or write the definition on the board. Begin by revealing just the term itself.

  2. Ask if any student volunteers recall the word from previous classes, and have them share any responses.

  3. Explain that the word has Greek roots: ónoma meaning name, and poi meaning to make (the same root for the word poet).

  4. Ask volunteers to discuss how the roots relate to the meanings that students have shared.

  5. Reveal the definition of the term:
    Onomatopoeia is the literary device that relies on words that imitate the sound that they name. They're sound effect words or noise words. Writers choose these words as a way of conveying the sound of the things that they are describing and emphasizing something about the scene that they're describing. Examples of onomatopoeia are boom, meow, crash, sizzle, crunch and buzz.
  6. Invite students to brainstorm a list of sound words, recording their responses on the board.

  7. Once it's clear that students understand the literary device, ask them to hypothesize why poets and writers use it in their writing.

  8. Hand out or display "The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe and the Exploring Onomatopoeia worksheet.

  9. Demonstrate how to find and think about the purpose of the onomatopoeia using the following example from the poem:

    Hear the sledges with the bells-
    Silver bells!
    What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
    How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
    In the icy air of night!
  10. If desired, use the following think-aloud as a model for the demonstration process:
    Most of these lines just describe where the bells are, the setting that they are in. The speaker is near some sleighs, or "sledges"; and the sleighs are decorated by "Silver bells." It's nighttime and it's cold outside because the speaker mentions "the icy air of night." The onomatopoeia in the poem, or the sound words, are "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle." The poet could have chosen to say that the bells were ringing, but instead, the poet chooses the verb "tinkle." The word tinkle sounds like a little bell ringing. A bigger bell might make a "bong, bong, bong" noise. It's also a pleasant sound, and that matches the description that Poe uses when he states, "a world of merriment their melody foretells." The word tinkle matches the light, merry sound of the silver bells.
  11. Point to the example on the Exploring Onomatopoeia worksheet, which details the response for this example.

  12. Individually or in small groups, have students work through the full poem, recording the examples of onomatopoeia that they find and indicating why they think the poet made the choices that he did.

  13. Monitor student progress, providing support and feedback as appropriate.

  14. Once students have worked through the poem, gather the class, and ask students to share their analysis. Focus the discussion on the poet's word choice. Consider how descriptive the sound words are as well as what they add to the poem as a whole.

  15. With the remaining time, ask students to choose (or create) their own onomatopoeic words. Display the Exploring Onomatopoeia interactive and demonstrate how to use the online tool.

  16. Individually or in small groups, have students work through the file, choosing sound words for each of the six sounds included in the interactive. Alternately, project the interactive using an LCD projector with speakers, and work through the sounds as a class.

  17. Allow time for students to share their responses to the sounds before the class ends. If time is short, students can complete this step for homework and share during the next class session.


  • Pass out additional pieces of literature featuring onomatopoeia (see list above) and ask students to identify the examples to demonstrate their understanding of the figure of speech.

  • Have students return to their own writing, looking for places where sound words can help them communicate their meaning. Students' exploration of their own work can be informal, or you might ask students to each find three places to add sound words to their working drafts.

  • Ask students to consider how onomatopoeia is used in comic strips and graphic novels. Ask students to identify examples and to think about why the technique is used in this genre of writing. Focus on the role that the words play by asking students to think about what would be lost if the sound words were not included in these texts.

  • Have students explore onomatopoeia in other cultures. Begin by looking at this chart of animal sounds in a variety of languages. Discuss why different cultures might represent the same sounds in different ways. Next, try some of these activities investigating Japanese onomatopoeia. After exploring the extensive onomatopoeia found in the Japanese language, students might look for onomatopoeia in Japanese manga and anime.

  • Use a picture book as a model for students' own stories that feature onomatopoeia. The following books will work for this activity:

    • Bunting, Eve. Smoky Night. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

    • Garland, Sherry. I Never Knew Your Name. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1994.

    • Schertle, Alice. Keepers. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1996.

    • Yolen, Jane. Sky Dogs. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

    • Yolen, Jane. Welcome to the Green House. New York: Putnam, 1993.

Student Assessment / Reflections

This should be a fun activity that students complete without the pressure of a grade. Discussion among students, supported by your commentary, can provide adequate feedback. Additionally, monitor progress during the minilesson through anecdotal notetaking and kidwatching. Students struggling with the concepts in the lesson may grasp the ideas if you supplement with a mini-lesson on words for animal sounds.

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