3 Ways to Show Students the Power of Figurative Language

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative language

Are your students like mine? They can parrot back the definitions of figurative devices and find them in a text, but when I ask them to analyze their purpose, or to use them effectively in their own writing, they often fall up short. I find that many of them have a pretty superficial understanding of figurative language, and they certainly don't understand its power. So, I've come up with some lessons and activities that show them how and why they need to become friends with it. Stick with me -- you might get some inspiration and a freebie or two!

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageFor some reason, when I start throwing around words like metaphor and personification – words my students associate with poetry – eyes start to glaze over and fear sets in. To prevent this, I attempt to show them why they should care. So many parts of their world are full of figurate language. I point out that we speak in metaphors all of the time. We use analogies to help explain ourselves. Advertisements and songs are full of imagery, both visual and oral. I tell students that songwriters and advertisers use these tools because they know they add depth to their messages, and because they make us pay attention. Then, we do an exercise that shows them just how prevalent figurative language is in their lives. I give them a couple of graphic organizers and send them home to search for it in the media, on their playlists and in the things the people around them say (grab them here).

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageOnce they've had a chance to see how often they interact with figurative language, we talk about why they should use it themselves. For example if they want to convince their English teacher to delay an essay for one day, they could try some hyperbole and litotes: "We have a mountain of problems we need to do for calculus tonight, so it's not the best time for us to focus on writing a great essay for you."  If they want to argue that they should be able to use their phones to look up synonyms, they can call the paper thesaurus a dinosaur. Point out that any time they want to communicate, whether it's for an essay or in a conversation, figurative language can help them do so in a more powerful way.  

Next, give them opportunities to try it for themselves.

Before I ask my students to analyze figurative language in the texts they read, I want them to actively engage with it themselves. Writing their own allusions, similes and metaphors will help them understand how and why other writers use them, because they've had experience using these devices themselves. We do this in a number of ways. First, after students do a writing prompt, we'll spend a few minutes looking for ways to use figurative language to strengthen their points. I ask them to read over their responses and find one place where they could add a simile, metaphor or any other device to their writing.  Soon, they get in the habit of reaching for this technique when they need to develop their ideas.

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative language

My favourite active learning exercises usually involve collaboration. When my students were having trouble writing their own metaphors earlier this semester, I created a metaphor challenge for them. They had a grand time trying to "out-metaphor" each other, and by the time they were done, they had a much deeper understanding of how the device works. Since then, I've added personification, allusion, idiom and hyperbole challenges too! My figurative language stations offer kids a way to practice analyzing how writers use figurative devices, as well as using them in their own writing.

I also ask my students to consider how they can use figurative language in all of their writing assignments, not just ones that focus on description and narration. Expository and persuasive writing benefits from these devices too, so I use mentor texts that illustrate this, and then encourage my kids to use it in their writing. All of my revision activities and stations require students to spend some time thinking about where they could use figurative language to enhance the points that they make. 

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageThey may not say it out loud, but students want us to give them a challenge, something that makes them stretch their mental muscles a bit. Asking them to memorize terminology and spew it back in a test is not the best way to engage them in real learning. Instead, provide them with activities that require them to show that they really understand how and why authors use figurative language in their work. 

Lessons and activities for teaching figurative languageWhen we start doing this in my room, we have a lot of small group discussions, so students can work on their analysis together. I give each group a passage in a text that is full of figurative language. They need to identify it first and then decide on it's purpose: why did the author choose this device? What effect is s/he trying to achieve? After they've had a chance to do this with others, I ask students to start analyze the use of figurative language on their own. You can grab the organizers I give my groups by clicking here.

My students have come a long way from that hot September afternoon when they couldn't come up with original metaphors. Now, I see and hear all kinds of figurative language in their writing and speaking assignments, which means that now I know that they really understand its power.

The rest of the Coffee Shop gals have some amazing lessons for figurative language too. Check it out!

Nouvelle ELA: Figurative Language Task Cards

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