To communicate clearly, students must be able to identify and correctly use figurative language.
Defining Figurative Language
Figurative language is language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation. When a writer uses literal language, he or she is simply stating the facts as they are. Figurative language, in comparison, uses exaggerations or alterations to make a particular linguistic point.
Figurative language is very common in poetry, but is also used in prose and nonfiction writing.
There are many different types of figurative language, covering the use of a specific type of word or word meaning:
- Metaphor: A metaphor is a comparison made between things which are essentially not alike. One example of a metaphor would be to say, “Nobody invites Edward to parties because he is a wet blanket.”
- Simile: A simile is a direct comparison and often uses the words like or as. One example of a simile would be to say, “Jamie runs as fast as the wind.”
- Personification: When something that is not human is given human-like qualities, this is known as personification. An example of personification would be to say, “The leaves danced in the wind on the cold October afternoon.”
- Hyperbole: Exaggerating, often in a humorous way, to make a point is known as hyperbole. One example of hyperbole would be to say, “My eyes widened at the sight of the mile-high sundaes we were having for dessert.”
- Symbolism: Symbolism occurs when something that has meaning in itself is used to represent something entirely different. One example of symbolism would be to use an image of the American flag to represent patriotism.
Figurative language also includes unusual constructions or combinations of words that provide a new perspective. For example:
- Onomatopoeia: When the name of an action imitates the sound associated with it, this is known as onomatopoeia. One example of onomatopoeia would be to say, “The bees buzz angrily when their hive is disturbed.”
- Idiom: An idiom is an expression used by a particular group of people with a meaning that is only known through common use. One example of an idiom would be to say, “I’m waiting for him to kick the bucket.” Many idioms that are frequently used are also considered clichés.
- Synecdoche: A synecdoche is a figure of speech using a word or words that are a part to represent a whole. For example, referring to credit cards as "plastic" is a synecdoche.
- Cliché: A cliché is a phrase that is often repeated and has become kind of meaningless. An example of a cliché is the expression "walk a mile in my shoes."
- Assonance: When you repeat a vowel sound in a phrase is it assonance. For example, "True, I do like Sue."
- Metonymy: A figure of speech where one thing is replaced with a word that is closely associated with it, such as using "Washington" to refer to the United States government.
Figurative Language Resources for Teachers
Teaching figurative language can be a challenge on many different levels. For example:
- Small children find figurative language difficult because they lack the intellectual capacity to realize that words can have more than one meaning.
- Those with disabilities such as autism have trouble in social settings because they prefer literal language over figurative expressions and have trouble identifying when a speaker is using literary devices such as hyperbole or metaphors.
- People who are learning English as a second language find many types of figurative language to be challenging because of their vocabulary limitations.
Teachers in search of ideas for discussing the use of figurative language in the classroom can find a variety of materials online. If you’re searching for free printable worksheets and lesson plans, YourDictionary recommends visiting the following helpful websites:
- Ed Helper has worksheets for elementary and junior high students covering similes, metaphors, and idioms.
- Boggles World has worksheets covering exaggerations, opposites, alliteration, metaphors, and similes.
- TLS Books provides a printable worksheet that challenges students to rewrite sentences to eliminate figurative language and provide the correct literal meaning.
- Read. Write. Think. has a lesson plan for students in grades 6-8 that uses The Phantom Tollbooth to introduce the concept of figurative language.
- PULSE has a lesson suggestion for high school students that uses The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot to increase understanding of the correct use of figurative language.
- Frost Friends: This website provides a look at the use of figurative language in the poetry of Robert Frost which could be used as the basis of a lesson plan for high school students.
For examples of figurative language for children, check out Metaphor Examples for Kids and Simile Examples for Kids.