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Speech in the Schools

Emotional Intensity in Adolescence: Teaching Nuance

Published December 15, 2014 8:55 AM by Teresa Roberts
Semantic gradient is the fancy term for ranking concepts along degrees of intensity -- making nuanced measurements of meaning. We use gradients in everyday casual speech. When someone asks you how you're doing, you might use gradations of neutrality, e.g., "so-so," "okay," "not bad," "fine," "alright," or "pretty good." Reading Rockets, a wonderful early literacy website from public broadcasting, describes how to use semantic gradients with younger students, including specific directions and a video of children comparing size differences from miniscule to gigantic.

We can use semantic gradients to help adolescents understand their feelings and internal states of being. Adolescence is a time of heightened emotional responsiveness, as students are forming their identities, navigating peer relationships and group belonging, establishing separation from parents/caregivers, and are challenged with higher-level academic content. All of these changes transpire while they are undergoing incredible physical and neurological growth. Even in our modern world, from an evolutionary biology perspective, adolescents are innately programmed to perform socially to attract potential mates. The emotional highs and lows may be unique to this time period. We can teach them about varied levels of emotional responses by sorting and ranking adjectives for emotional terms.

  • Adjectives for mad: confused, bored, cranky, crabby, irritated, annoyed, perturbed, agitated, flustered, exasperated, mad, angry, furious, livid, etc.
  • Adjectives for sad: blue, listless, sad, unhappy, hurt, depressed, despondent, distraught, devastated, heartbroken, etc.
  • Adjectives for happy: interested, curious, hopeful, pleased, amused, delighted, happy, overjoyed, enthused, elated thrilled, excited, ecstatic, etc.

Students can work in small groups and rank the positive and negative responses along degrees of intensity. Recognizing shades that exist within any given emotional reaction increases students' self-awareness and descriptive vocabulary skills. There is not one correct way to complete a hierarchy, as emotions do not necessarily have discrete linear elements; however, it is important that students recognize extreme ends of the continuum. Once the adjectives are ranked, you are able to bridge to a variety of activities using the emotional terms:

  • Describe the physiological reactions related to the different emotions (heart racing, changes in breathing, body posture, etc.)
  • Describe (role play, photograph, video model, draw) the facial expressions associated with the emotions (always end the lesson with happy emotions -- we can feel the feelings we imitate)
  • Match adjectives to emoticons or icons
  • Use the emotional terms for daily check-ins or journaling
  • Choose emotional responses based on sample social situations (pictures and short narratives)
  • Self-reflect and generate examples of times that students have felt different emotions
  • Choose from a variety strategies to self-calm for the different emotional responses
  • Self-reflect about how quickly the students move along the continuum of emotions (does a student go from irritated to livid immediately?)
  • Match the adjectives to characters in sample social situations, literacy texts, videos, etc. (social perspective)
  • Expand the lists to include gradations of amusement, fear, surprise, etc.

Think back to your own adolescence and remember the intensity of feelings that we all felt at 16-years-old. We can use this melodrama as a learning tool!

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1 comments

Speech in the Schools : Emotional Intensity in Adolescence: Teaching Nuance

January 14, 2015 4:07 PM

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About this Blog


    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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