Lesson Plans

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Getting Down to Business: Formal vs. Informal Vocabulary

Lesson Question:

How can students use the Visual Thesaurus to choose the appropriate words for business communication?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students learn about what distinguishes business writing from more informal styles of communication. They then use the Visual Thesaurus to revise an informally written business letter for word choice.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • learn to distinguish between informal and formal words and phrases
  • use the Visual Thesaurus to find more formal and appropriate words for the purpose of business communication
  • work in partners to revise a business letter for word choice and clarity


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers or iPads with Internet access
  • copies of "Business Letter in Need of Revision"  [click here to download]


Writing and sharing journal entries about responding to a job posting:

  • Ask students to consider the following hypothetical scenario and write a journal entry in response to the prompt.

If you were writing an email or a letter to a potential employer, which sentence would you more likely use as your opening sentence? Explain why you chose the sentence you did. Which words in particular helped you make your choice?

Sentence A: 
I am writing to inquire about the job you recently posted on Monster.com. 

Sentence B:
A couple of days ago I saw your ad on Monster.com and wanted to ask you if I could find out more about it.

  • Have a few volunteer students read their sentence choices and their explanations.
  • Most of your students will probably choose the fist sentence, since it is more formal in tone and therefore more appropriate for an audience of a potential employer. 


Distinguishing between formal and informal word choice:

  • Hold a brief discussion focusing on which specific words in the first sentence appealed to students as more formal or appropriate. Compare and contrast the following word choice in your discussion: inquire vs. ask; recently vs. a couple of days ago.

  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for inquire and point out that even though ask and inquire share the same meaning, they do not communicate the same tone. Ask is used more often in everyday spoken language, while inquire is usually used only in more formal circumstances.
  • Also point out that the first sentence is much more concise — using only thirteen words to express what it takes the second sentence twenty-four words to express.

Identifying poor word choice in a business letter:

  • Explain to students that their word choice influences how their audience perceives them. And, if that audience is an anonymous potential employer (or anyone else they are trying to impress), then they should choose their words carefully and try to communicate in a professional tone.
  • Distribute copies of "Business Letter in Need of Revision" to students. Explain that the letter is a block format business letter that was written to complain about Ask students to read the letter and circle words or phrases that they feel could be revised to be more concise, formal, or appropriate.

Using the Visual Thesaurus as a word choice revision tool:

  • Advise students to use the Visual Thesaurus to help them consider more concise and appropriate word choice for a business letter. You may need to specifically guide students in looking up the following words and phrases in the VT: look into, figure out, deal, mess, make up, a lot, kid, OK, pain.
  • Emphasize that students may also need to click on the colored meaning bubbles to reveal additional words in the display. For example, clicking the meaning bubble associated with the phrase figure out, reveals the word resolve — which would be more appropriate in the context of a business letter.
  • Explain that business letters need to be clear and to the point, communicating a desired outcome. A sentence like "Please figure out a way to deal with this mess and make it up to me" could be more clearly and directly stated as: "Please resolve this issue and compensate me by replacing the phone for no extra charge."
  • Direct students to write notes in the margin about any other problems with the letter. Ask students to put themselves in the position of the customer service representative who is on the receiving end of the letter. Would they take the letter seriously? Would they need more information in order to address the complaint? Would they understand the specific action the customer is requesting?

Here is a snippet from a business letter in need of revision, with annotations in the margins:


Revising in partners:

  • Ask students to find partners and to compare their notes and revision ideas for the business letter, and to then rewrite a revised version of the business letter.
  • If time permits, have a few students read aloud their revised letters and hold a brief closing discussion about the types of changes they made.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Have students write and send actual business letters about an issue that they would personally like to see resolved. It could be a letter of complaint or suggestion to a school official, to a local government representative, or to a manufacturer. Students should have peers proofread their drafts, and then they should revise their letters accordingly before sending.


  • Assess students' revised business letters for the following elements: word choice (from informal to more formal); brevity (being more concise); and clarity (communicating clear expectations about how to resolve the issue).

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6—12
Text Types and Purposes

2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.

b. Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
c. Use appropriate and varied transitions to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts.
d. Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
e. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone.
f. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use (Language Standard)
Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

  • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
  • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).


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