Not sure where to begin with teaching figurative language? Give these short stories a try. In this post, I detail 6 of my favorite short stories that are sure to keep students engaged while providing a foundation for exploring the power of figurative language.
In many ways, figurative language is the heart and soul of literature.
As ELA teachers, we understand the power figurative language adds to any story, right? We value an author’s ability to communicate big or complex ideas and emotions more clearly and effectively. We appreciate their skillful use of language to engage an audience and draw readers into a real or fictional setting. We know the power language and figures of speech have in establishing setting or characterization and its ability to amplify tone, mood, conflict, or theme.
As for our students? Many of them need us to show them this power. And if you’ve read my post all about teaching figurative language in secondary ELA, you already know a lot of this boils down to the mentor texts you use to do so.
And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of my favorite mentor texts for teaching figurative language are short stories. That’s why I’m dedicating a whole post to sharing some of my favorite short stories that can help you help them better grasp the magic, beauty, and power of figurative language.
Short stories provide a highly accessible context for students to explore figurative language. With concise narrative arcs and concentrated themes, short stories help root big abstract ideas in a more concrete way.
In the limited space of a short story, every word counts. Therefore, students don’t have to get lost in an overly complex storyline or a plethora of chapters to understand the impact of literary devices. Instead, authors employ literary devices to add layers of meaning, paint vivid imagery, and invite readers to engage in a deeper interpretation of a text in a matter of pages.
“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury quickly draws readers in (typical Bradbury, am I right?) by creating a unique setting of violent weather and the dreary rain-soaked landscape of Venus, where the sun only appears for one hour every seven years. As a classroom of young children eagerly awaits the sun’s appearance, Bradbury uses vivid imagery, similes, and metaphors to convey the children’s eagerness around this highly anticipated phenomenon.
The shared excitement for the sun to make its rare appearance is swiftly and skillfully juxtaposed against the ostricization of a young girl named Margo. The school children’s cruel treatment and isolation their classmate climaxes when they ultimately lock her in a classroom closet. As a result, she misses the magical hour of sunshine she so desperately yearned for.
Per usual, students will be quickly sucked into this unique, dystopian world Ray Bradbury has created. Leverage students’ interest with the narrative’s rich language to teach them about the power language, encouraging them to explore the nuances of figurative expression in literature. You can even have the write their own figurative language-rich poems about the sun, or other elements of nature, just like Margot and her classmates in the story!
“There Will Come Soft Rains,” another short story by Bradbury, paints a haunting picture of a post-apocalyptic world where a fully automated house “senselessly” carries on its routine despite the tragic death of its inhabitants. Like I said, creepy. Set in the aftermath of nuclear war and destruction, the story explores the complicated relationship between life, technology, and nature.
Bradbury employs figurative language, most notably personification, to bring the technology-dependent house to life. As a result, he creates an eerie (and, perhaps, unexpected) main character (the house) that seems unphased by the lack of human life. While it seems untouchable at first, the house eventually succumbs to nature when it is destroyed by a fire. While the house once seemed to defy nature, natural forces are what ultimtealy led to its demise, emphasizing the idea that nature will always prevail. (Always.)
Overall, Bradbury’s story is an allegory speaking to mankind’s dependence on technology, disregarding its negative impact on life and nature. There are plenty of opportunities to teach students about the impact of personification, metaphor, and allusion in conveying complex themes. Furthermore, they can dig into Bradbury’s language and stylistic choices that amplify the broader commentary at play.
Let’s keep going with the ominous tales, shall we? “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe takes readers on a spine-chilling journey as they follow an unnamed narrator’s fall into madness. Thanks to his masterful use of figurative language, Poe creates a psychological thriller that explores themes of guilt and paranoia.
Between the symbolic relentless beating of the dead man’s heart and the description of his neighbor’s vulture-like eye, Poe uses figurative language to amplify the story’s dark and creepy mood and tone. While the narrator claims his innocence, Poe uses contrasting dark and light imagery to escalate haunting feelings of fear and doom, laying the perfect groundwork for the narrator’s slip into guilt-ridden madness. Overall, the story’s powerful figurative language masterfully underscores the growing tension between the narrator and his guilty conscience.
Students are sure to love diving into Poe’s creepy tale rich with figurative language. By choosing such an engaging text, students will be that much more willing and eager to dig deeper into the text. Encourage students to explore how figurative language contributes to a text’s tone and mood, deepening student’s understanding of the art of narrative writing.
“202 Checkmates” is a contemporary short story that follows a young girl’s journey of learning about the game of chess and gaining a deeper understanding of her father. The story comes to life through vivid descriptive writing of the ordinary, pulling the reader into the narrative as if they are in the young girl’s world.
Whether describing her father, the family’s living room, the park, or the game of chess, the narrator uses figurative language to draw the reader into what could easily be a mundane topic. For example, students always enjoy the way the narrator describes the chess pieces using human-like characteristics such as the pawn who “magically blossom[ed] into royalty” or the king who “stood there lonely and helpless, cut off from all its allies.”
Avid chess players or not, your students will feel sucked into this story and, by the end, understand that it’s about so much more than 202 games of chess. While this text does include a few f-bombs and a (very) brief reference to the narrator’s first period, it’s a beautiful coming of age story about a girl who learns a great deal about her father and life thanks to a game board, its rules, and its pieces.
“The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst weaves a poignant tale of the beautiful yet strained relationship between two brothers. The story follows as an unnamed narrator recalls his memories of his younger disabled brother named Doodle. He details how, driven by pride, he pushed Doodle to overcome his challenges. Despite pushing Doodle too far at times, the narrator explains how it all stemmed from the love and pride he had for his brother. Unfortunately, his stubborn pride is also what ultimately leads to Doodle’s untimely death.
The narrative unfolds with rich figurative language and symbolism, coming to a climax when the boys find a scarlet ibis that ultimately dies in the family’s garden. The bird becomes a powerful metaphor for Doodle’s fragile existence, foreshadowing his tragic death. Throughout the story, Hurst employs personification, similes, and metaphors, among other forms of figurative language, to develop a rich southern setting and poignant story of love between the two brothers.
Guide students through the exploration of the symbolism of the ibis and the descriptive language used throughout, providing compelling context for understanding how figurative elements enhance emotional impact. By analyzing the layers of language Hurst employs, students can deepen their understanding of this rich story of brotherly love, the complexities of pride, and inevitable death.
“The Landlady” by Roald Dahl tells the unsettling tale of a young man named Billy Weaver who innocently seeks lodging in a (seemingly) quaint bed and breakfast. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that his choice in shelter will ultimately lead him to a harrowing fate.
As young Billy Weaver gets acquainted with the B&B’s landlady, Dahl ramps up his use of figurative language, notably irony. While the landlady’s kind and welcome façade is described with warm, inviting language, it contrasts the sinister truth—Dun, dun, dun. Dahl utilizes this juxtaposition to establish a sense of dramatic irony, where readers begin to sense the impending danger Weaver will face while he remains unaware. Throughout the story, Dahl employs vivid descriptive language and subtle foreshadowing, creating an atmosphere of suspense as the readers come face to face with these chilling revelations.
“The Landlady” is a highly engaging tale that students always devour while inviting them into the world of irony. Students can dissect how Dahl strategically places verbal irony in the landlady’s dialogue and situational irony in the events that unfold as the story progresses. Analyzing these elements enhances comprehension of the story’s tone and builds a deeper appreciation for the impact of figurative language in developing suspense in a narrative. Furthermore, Dahl uses the figurative language to relay the message that you can’t judge a book by its cover because, as Weaver learns, appearances can be quite deceiving.
Teaching figurative language through short stories allows you to engage students in a learning journey where compelling plots are brought to life through the power of words, shades of meaning, and the art of storytelling.
While the abstract and nuanced nature of figurative language is often intimidating for students, short yet compelling stories give students a more concrete context to explore its use and impact. This allows you to better support students, scaffolding the journey as they learn how language can be used to craft poignant stories that serve as a gateway to understanding, empathy, and exploration of the human experience.
As you get to planning your next figurative language unit, I’d love to know which short stories (from this post or otherwise) that you plan to use. Leave a comment below to let me know!