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Teaching onomatopoeia – Make your English language lessons go with a bang

It's a tough word to spell – but a hugely useful rhetorical device for the greater depth writing toolkit in KS1 and KS2
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 22 June 2020

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Onomatopoeia is a topic that is likely to bring a smile to the faces of your pupils. They will probably have no problems with providing an onomatopoeia example or two. The question is, will they be able to use it effectively?

After all, when used clumsily, onomatopoeia can be more distracting and even annoying than enhancing.

Here are some ideas for inspiring creativity in your children that is music to your ears rather than a crashing disappointment.



What is onomatopoeia?

Apart from being a ridiculously tricky word to spell, onomatopoeia describes when a word sounds like the thing to which it refers. Each onomatopoeic word is like an imitation of the noise it describes.

Bang, clang, thump are obvious examples, as are animal noises like hiss, roar and buzz, but there are plenty of more subtle ones too; encouraging pupils to appreciate that should turn them into better writers.

Onomatopoeia examples

  • Bang
  • Clang
  • Thump
  • Roar
  • Hiss
  • Buzz
  • Smash
  • Crash
  • Click
  • Boom
  • Cough
  • Gargle



What’s an onomatopoeia word? And what isn’t?

Some people might dispute whether onomatopoeia includes words whose sounds suggest certain qualities of the items they are describing rather than the actual sound they make.

For example, freshness as a concept does not have a particular sound but the word certainly does sound refreshing, like a splash of cool water.

Rather than getting puritanical about whether or not they fit the definition, encourage pupils to include similar examples in their writing in exactly the same way that they would with onomatopoeia.



Using onomatopoeia in persuasive writing

Onomatopoeia is most obviously associated with creative writing. Poetry usually provides a particularly good opportunity for using it, although it can be overdone – the repeated use of sound words like Boom does not make a war poem!

However, encourage pupils to seek it out in other genres then apply it in their own versions. Persuasive writing such as advertising copy usually offers a particularly rich supply, from sizzling sausages to fluffy mash.



Introducing onomatopoeia in KS1

For younger pupils, onomatopoeia can start in a very familiar place – Old MacDonald’s farm. If you think about it, the whole song is based on onomatopoeia, with the different sounds of an oink oink here and a baa baa there. In fact, it’s hard to think of any words for animal sounds that are not named after the noise.

You might have your own favourite song or story that achieves the same aim but familiarity is often a good place to start. From this foundation, you can then move on to…



Echo reading and onomatopoeia

Many words that use onomatopoeia might not instantly stand out as such because they are so familiar. A good way to draw attention to it is through guided reading sessions, especially with reading fluency activities such as echo reading.

As you no doubt know, echo reading involves reading a text in short bursts and getting the pupils to read exactly the same section, mimicking your intonation.

As well as helping to develop reading confidence and comprehension, it could be used to highlight sentences that include onomatopoeia. Of course, it will involve selecting extracts with care but most age-appropriate texts are bound to have plenty of examples.



Onomatopoeia in KS2

Having introduced the basic concept, this is the time to encourage pupils to use onomatopoeia with a little more finesse. After all, the emphasis on writing in KS2 shifts from the more technical focus of KS1 to include ideas of writing for effect and purpose.

This should involve selecting vocabulary with the reader in mind, which will call for a more mature approach.



Use onomatopoeia effectively by listening to sounds

If you really want to get your pupils to use onomatopoeia more effectively, try getting them to listen first. You could try playing music-free clips from a live action film without the visuals and get them to note down every drip, click, tinkle and rustle.

Alternatively, you could use one of our writing inspiration packs and use it to help them imagine, for example, every squelch, rattle and neigh of a Victorian street.



Practising onomatopoeia

Once they have attuned their senses, give them plenty of opportunity to practise. You could use our sentence maker game packs to get you started.

We also offer an onomatopoeia challenge mat resource, packed with activities to help them hone their skills, including poetry stimuli and sentences in which they have to change words to more onomatopoeic alternatives.



Performing onomatopoeia

As in KS1, drama and guided reading activities are excellent ways to help pupils explore the rich possibilities of carefully chosen language. Why not help them select poems to learn then recite as a performance?

Not only will that give them the chance to develop their acting skills, but it will also provide a very immediate appreciation of how experienced writers select particular words for all sorts of reasons, including onomatopoeia.

You can then challenge them to write poems of their own with a view to performing them to the class. That should inspire them to consider how their words will sound and whether they will contribute to the meaning of their composition.



Pitfalls of using onomatopoeia

At the risk of seeming like a spoil-sport, encourage pupils not to get too carried away with onomatopoeia. It is usually far better to weave expressive vocabulary into sentences rather than to have it hitting the reader in the face. Bam!

Of course, there are plenty of very effective exceptions to this rule, but they usually feature in humorous writing.

Encourage pupils to use actual words rather than invent their own onomatopoeic words. Once again, there will be examples of writers doing this well but, if you’re not careful, your pupils’ writing might start to resemble superhero cartoons.

Kapow! Gn-ugh! Also, one exclamation mark is enough (and often too many). Don’t accept examples of “Crash!!!” or “Bang!!!” – that way, madness lies.

Hopefully, this has tickled your teach-buds and your pupils will soon be sprinkling pretty little onomatopoeic flourishes throughout their writing.

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