Teach Tone with One Sentence

     Picture this scenario:
Have tone and mood been stumbling blocks for your middle grade students? One of the most frequent questions I get from teachers is about how to teach tone. Now, I no longer have to reply, "I'll be darned if I know!" ;) Here's an awesome trick to teach kids what tone means and how to include it in writing!

     Typical middle schooler. At home after school. 

     Cut to the harried mother, who has not only been to work and back, but has also picked up, dropped off, cooked dinner, and cleaned up...you've got the picture.

     Mother, calmly, to middle school student: I've asked you twice already to unload the dishwasher.

     Middle schooler in a smarmy voice: I said I will... when I'm finished.

     Mother slowly looks up at middle schooler. If smoke were capable of coming out of one's ears, she would look like the smokestack at a plastics factory: Don't. Speak. To me. With that tone.

     Middle schooler, sensing danger, plays dumb, shrugs innocently, attempts to sound sweet: What? I didn't do anything. I said I'll help you, that's all. I'll do it now.
      Eruption narrowly averted.

     This is likely the only connection that my students can make to "tone." 

     They know that sometimes they get in trouble for it.

Teaching Tone       
      So when I teach it, I always replay this scene for them, and I love to play the mother and the child in the little act.  Then I give them a written version of the same scenario and ask them to use their inference skills to determine the tone. They also have to underline details that support their idea. They quickly figure out the word choices and short, choppy sentences develop tension. And since the reader feels the tension,  the tone must be helping to establish the mood.     

        Then comes the task of teaching tone, and encouraging students to develop tone in their own narratives. Language choices are important, of course, but there's more to it. So I give them a little challenge and I write this sentence on the board:

       Then I ask students how many meanings can be derived from the sentence, written exactly as it is. What do you think?  Students all have the same answer: one.


      I underline the first word and ask a student to read it with emphasis. Try it.

      What does the sentence mean now? Right. The implication is that someone else said "you" stole my red hat.

      Try it again. This time, erase the underline and run the marker over the word "say" so that it appears boldface.

       Interesting, right? The kids catch on right away that the speaker didn't accuse by speaking, but may have written the accusation in a text or may have implied the accusation.
        By now you really have their attention! Go through each and every word the same way. The kids love it and can't wait to participate by saying, "With the emphasis on stole the speaker is saying the person did something else with the hat!" Or with the emphasis on red "The speaker is saying it was a different color hat!"

        It's great fun. And when we finish, we clearly have eight different meanings. This is tone.

Writing with Tone in Mind  
        Next, we have to figure out how to establish tone in our own writing. The first ways, of course, include our sentence structure and word choices. But now the kids realize that the underlining, boldface, and quotation marks helped them understand meaning and tone.

        So it must be....punctuation!

        Mission accomplished :)

       Now if I could only get my son to empty the dishwasher.

     If you would like more practice on setting, tone, and mood, check out these ready-to-use resources:
Have tone and mood been stumbling blocks for your middle grade students? One of the most frequent questions I get from teachers is about how to teach tone. Now, I no longer have to reply, "I'll be darned if I know!" ;) This resource contains all of the tricks I've always used, plus some additional goodies!

Setting, Mood, and Tone don't have to be too difficult for kids to understand. You just need a few tips and tricks to teach them. This unit will be a great help.  The guided notes come in two interactive styles: folding and Cornell. The 34 slide PowerPoint and the 23 page pdf include the following: ★ clear explanations on how to read closely to determine setting, mood, and theme ★ examples for modeling ★ video links to enhance the lesson  Specific setting, mood, and tone exit slips are also included!


  1. Love this! Already as a middle schooler, I loved diagramming sentences, and punctuation is one of my closest friends... (I never met an exclamation point I didn't love, and it's always the right time for a comma, in my opinion!)... so this sounds like just about the funnest day of teaching I could imagine. So glad you got the students to enjoy it, too! But yes, about that dishwasher...


    1. Haha! Julie, I love commas also! I know I overuse them, but I just tell myself I must like them because I speak slowly. I am so impressed that you like diagramming sentences!
      Take care!

  2. I use "I never said I owed you any money." I use it to teach both tone and when teaching Confirmation class (this teaches the importance of interpretation).

    Thanks for the blog.

  3. That's a great idea! I'll try that one.
    Thank you!

  4. Ahhh I love this post too! I think I may be stalking your blog regularly!

    x Serena x
    Magic Mistakes & Mayhem

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you, Heather! I'm stopping by right now!

  6. You know, this makes a great beginning-of-the-year activity. So many of the consequences my students receive come from their nasty tones. I tell them all the time, "It's not what you said but how you said it." When they get angry, my reminders go right out the door. Maybe we should practice it like this!! Great suggestion!

  7. I love this, Darlene Anne! So simple yet so effective. What a great way to introduce tone. Thank you.

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  11. Sorry if this sounds obtuse: is this tone or is it just placing emphasis? None of the examples based on the sentence convey the speaker's attitude towards the topic. It's just emphasis for meaning surely?

    1. Emphasizing words does make the speaker's attitude apparent. They can be sarcastic, arrogant, or ambiguous, and by emphasizing certain words over others, the meaning changes, as does the tone. The author's attitude is demonstrated through their word choice, details, and structure, but for my middle school students it's easier to first demonstrate tone through speech. That's the way they're most accustomed to hearing references to tone, so I always start here. Then it gets easier as we go along.