Great news, teacher friends. There’s no need to dread teaching figurative language. Instead, follow these 8 tips for making figurative language engaging and effective in the secondary classroom.
Teaching figurative language can be fun and engaging for students and teachers. But teaching figurative language can also be quite daunting.
So, what’s the trick to avoiding the latter?
If you’re worried about getting students to buy in when teaching figurative language, you’ve come to the right place. After all, how many times have students asked for the relevance of our teachings? “I’m never going to use this in my real life,” they claim. Luckily, the application of figurative language goes far beyond literature. Chances are your students use it in everyday speak—they just don’t realize it. Evidence of figurative language can be found in everything from movies to song lyrics to advertisements. Relevant? I’d say so.
But it doesn’t matter whether you or I see the relevance here. Keep reading for tips to help students understand (and appreciate) the purpose, relevance, and application of figurative language.
What is Figurative Language?
Figurative language refers to language used to convey a deeper meaning than the concrete meaning of the words themselves. People rely on figurative language to make abstract concepts more concrete for an audience. That’s why it’s packed with implications, imagery, emotions, and connotations.
In other words, I like to think of it as a creative way to articulate meaning. As the special effects of the written word. Everyone, from authors to advertisers, looks toward these nuanced meanings to help convey ideas by encouraging people to draw comparisons, make inferences, and reveal deeper messages.
Why is Teaching Figurative Language Important?
Figurative language gives students the skills to interpret, make inferences, think critically about, and establish the meaning of a text. As a result, they can build connections between the language being used and their knowledge and experiences. This will enhance their understanding of a text and give students more options when expressing critical, creative, or persuasive thoughts of their own.
Effective use of figurative language allows students to express ideas creative and impactful ways—and not just when writing essays or analyzing literature in English class. Students use figurative language all the time—they just don’t realize it. So, yes, expanding upon students’ figurative language toolbox gives them more options to utilize when writing or analyzing a text. However, it also offers a more concrete context of the language they see, hear, and use every day:
“I’m so bored I could die.”
“School is torture.”
“The homework took me forever.”
In fact, these commonly used instances of figurative language are a great place to start when unpacking the concept.
Types of Figurative Language
Figurative language is an umbrella term for a ton of literary devices. While secondary students are likely familiar with terms like similes, metaphor, and personification, starting with a quick review never hurts! Incorporating a short review is better than assuming what students already know.
Whether you’re planning a review or explicit instruction, consider teaching the following types of figurative language:
- Similes use the words “like” or “as” to suggest a similarity between two unlikely things
Example: Crying like a baby
- Metaphors compare two seemingly different things by suggesting one is the other. Example: Life is a highway.
- Hyperbole refers to extreme exaggeration for emphasis or humor. Example: I died of embarrassment.
- Oxymorons combine two opposing notions into a single phrase for comedic, dramatic, or thought-provoking effects. Example: Jumbo shrimp or deafening silence
- Personification gives human-like characteristics to non-human objects, elements, or animals. Example: The trees danced in the wind.
- Onomatopoeia refers to using words that imitate the sound an object or action makes. Example: Bang, boom, slurp, swish, and sizzle.
- Idioms are expressions that mean something completely different than the phrase’s literal meaning. Example: Piece of cake, break a leg, or throwing shade.
- Allusion means briefly referencing a well-known person, place, event, or literary work to deepen meaning. For example, biblical stories and names are often referenced in literature.
- Synecdoche is used when referencing part of a thing to mean the whole thing, and vice versa. Example: Saying, “Check out my new wheels” when referring to a new car.
Other figures of speech you might include are alliteration, assonance, understatements, analogy, and irony.
8 Tips for Teaching Figurative Language
There are several ways to approach any topic in the ELA classroom. But not all teacher tips are created equal. So, if you’re wondering how to teach figurative language while making it fun, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.
Read on for 8 tips for teaching figurative language in an engaging and effective way.
1. Scaffold Your Approach
While it’s tempting to jump right into the literature, students must know the basics before they can apply their knowledge. Secondary students likely have a foundational understanding of figurative language. However, you’ll want to scaffold the introduction of more complex uses of language like allusions, idioms, personification, and synecdoche. Rather than overwhelming students with a list of intimidating terms and their definitions, focus on a few examples at a time.
2. Use Stations
A great way to minimize student overwhelm is to have students work through hands-on figurative language stations. After introducing students to the terms, have them work in groups to apply their knowledge. Students can work together to identify and unpack a list of figurative language examples at each station. This is an excellent opportunity for formative assessment before moving on with instruction and further activities.
Guide students through the stations with the following questions for each figurative language example:
- What type of figurative language is the author employing?
- What idea is the author trying to convey? How does it impact the reader?
- Was the author successful?
3. Use Strong Mentor Texts
When approaching figurative language, teaching in context is vital. Sure, you can start with words and definitions. However, by themselves, those two will only go so far. Students need more context to understand how they work. Pair the terms and their meanings with various examples from literature and poetry for a close reading. However, don’t be afraid to step beyond literature here. Examining examples from pop culture and everyday life is highly engaging for students—and just as effective too.
4. Bring in Popular Culture
Incorporating pop culture when teaching figurative language is not only effective, but it’s a ticket to student buy-in. If we want students to understand the relevance of what we’re teaching, we need to show them evidence of its application in the world beyond the classroom. There are plenty of examples of figurative language waiting to be discovered and discussed in popular song lyrics, movies, and advertisements. Is Alicia Keys really singing about a girl literally on fire? Does America really run on Dunkin’? Ask your students and see what they say!
5. Incorporate Videos
Incorporating videos into your lessons is highly stimulating and engaging, especially for visual and auditory learners. Not sure where to start? YouTube is a phenomenal resource for reinforcing definitions and reviewing examples of figurative language in pop culture, especially in songs and movies. However, always preview a video before showing it to your class. (Trust me. You don’t want to learn this the hard way.)
The videos below are perfect to share with your secondary students:
- Introduce idioms with this Shmoop video or allusions using Disney movies
- This video provides pop-culture examples of similes, metaphors, and idioms
- This TedEd video is a great dive into the art of figurative language
- A very approachable and relatable review of figurative language
- Looking for a thorough intro? This video covers the eight kinds of figurative language. It even includes a little quiz at the end!
6. Have Students Find Examples
There’s no need for you to do all of the heavy lifting. A figurative language scavenger hunt is a perfect review activity. Provide students with a list of terms and challenge them to find an example for each type of figurative language. To help drive home the relevance of figurative language, challenge them to find examples from literature as well as music, TV or movies, social media, and advertisements. As an extension activity, you can invite students to turn their favorite examples into silly memes to hang on the wall.
7. Act it Out
Another engaging review activity is to have students perform examples of figurative language. Split students up into small groups and assign each group a figurative language device. Then, have them develop a short 1-2 minute script that puts their literary device in the spotlight. Students have come up with everything from acting out “raining cats and dogs” to writing a script overflowing with hyperbole. Challenge the other students to figure out which type of figurative language is being used in each skit.
8. Get Them Writing
Now that students have had plenty of time to work with examples, it’s time to get them to utilize the language in their writing. There are many creative writing activities to help students practice using figurative language. You can have them create a list of examples and non-examples. (Silly non-examples always stir up some laughter.) Challenge them to bring a scene to life with personification. Or, my favorite, have students describe an emotion using an extended simile or metaphor. As with any creative writing challenge, establish guidelines that meet your students’ learning needs.
Teaching Figurative Language: The Next Steps
Once your students have a strong foundation, I recommend moving on to analyzing figurative language in poetry and short stories! Both are great stepping stones before diving into a longer, more dense novel. Besides, you can have students narrow their focus to figurative language, asking them to identify and analyze various examples or explain how the author’s figurative language aids in establishing the setting, characterization, mood, or theme.
And if your students appear intimidated by figurative language, remind them that they are more familiar with the concept than they realize. While it’s your job to help connect the dots, I hope this post helps you achieve that goal using an effective and engaging approach. Remember, don’t be afraid to think outside the box, incorporate pop culture, and let students have some fun as they explore the nuances of the English language.