Teaching Literary Elements: Figurative Language

February 23, 2018

Figurative language is often what makes a story so rich and powerful. A reader is able to visualize exactly what the author intended when just the right language is used. Whether you are teaching these as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, read on to find activities and resources that will benefit all levels of students.
Figurative language is often what makes a story so rich and powerful. A reader is able to visualize exactly what the author intended when just the right language is used.

Whether you are teaching figurative langauge as a new concept for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, you'll find activities and resources below that will benefit all levels of students.

Terms to Teach
At the start of my teaching career, I taught primarily ninth grade students at an urban, Title 1 high school. My students came from a variety of K-8 schools, which meant they came with varying English Language Arts experiences. To ensure that all of my students started high school with a strong foundation in the literary elements, I found it best to give direct instruction followed by ample opportunities to apply terms and practice skills.

During my direct instruction, I introduced students to the following terms: simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, understatement, and idioms/figures of speech. Many of my students were unaccustomed to taking notes so I provided them with a guided note taking template. This three column sheet provided a structured space for the term, definition, and examples. This note taking PowerPoint has clear, concise definitions and examples plus built in guided and independent practice.

Activities for Reinforcement
Before applying these newly learned terms to a poem, short story, or novel, I like to give my students opportunities to practice using shorter texts or media. For figurative language, using short video compilations provides great reinforcement. I have collected videos with examples of figurative language from songs, movies, TV shows, and commercials in this playlist. I play a few and have students identify the type of figurative language and analyze its meaning.

Another way I reinforce the types of figurative language is by using this free menu of activities based on Bloom's Taxonomy. Students choose activities from four different section of the menu: knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students examine short text examples of different types of conflict and can use their knowledge to complete tasks such as creating a Frayer's model for one of the types of figurative language or creating a cartoon showing the difference between interpreting a statement figuratively and literally.

Incorporating Movement and Hands-on Activities
One year I taught at an all boys school so giving them opportunities to move around and get some of that energy out was a must. Using stations focused on the types of figurative language is one way I did that. I pushed together desks, but you can also use tables, to set up six stations around the room. At each station, students completed activities such as matching terms and definitions and categorizing types of figurative langauge. Because all of the station activities involve matching, sorting, or sequencing, they are easy to check and offer feedback to students on their mistakes.

If you really like to get your students moving, you could hold a figurative language relay race (you might want to see if you can do this in your gymnasium or another large space in your school). At one end of the room, put a pile of examples of figurative language. Have students line up in their groups (of three to six students) at the other end of the room. Give each group an answer sheet that has statements like "find a simile that compares an animal to something else" or "find a hyperbole that shows how hungry someone is." The first group member has to run to the pile of answers and sort through it to find the correct one. He or she brings it back to the group, which then confers about whether it is correct. If it is, the group writes it down and moves on to the next statement. If it is not correct, the next group member is sent to the pile. Repeat until students have filled their answer sheet and you have confirmed that it is correct.

Another way to incorporate movement is to flip your instruction. Instead of having students take notes on figurative language, break students into groups and assign each group a type. Groups can then make a poster with a definition, examples, a highlighted poem that utilizes that types of figurative language and an image. After the posters are complete, hang them around your classroom and have students take notes as they do a gallery walk.

If you are a picture book lover like me, you could have students do a scavenger hunt for figurative language with a partner. To make it more challenging, allow students to only collect one example per children's book. Your school librarian or local librarian may be a help in recommending and obtaining relevant titles.

Texts to Read
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is my go-to for figurative language. The novel as a whole is wonderful, but each chapter is a vignette that can stand as a short story on its own. A favorite chapter is the one titled "The Family of Little Feet," which I use as a mentor text to help students write a narrative of their own and incorporative figurative language. You could review one vignette as a class and then, similar to the scavenger hunt idea above using picture books, break students into groups to find figurative language in the other vignettes.

While all of Ray Bradbury's short stories are filled with figurative language, my favorite to use is A Sound of Thunder. The idea behind this short story has always fascinated me. If we could travel back in time, how would it affect the future? In Ray Bradbury’s text, time travel takes the characters to the prehistoric age of dinosaurs and one misstep has innumerable effects on the future. It’s a perfect illustration of the butterfly effect.

Other novels that are filled with figurative language are Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer, The Christopher Killer by Alane FergusonStand Tall by Joan Bauer, Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers, Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz RyanManiac Magee by Jerry SpinelliBud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Skin I'm In by Sharon Flake, and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.

You can find a variety of text types with figurative language here on CommonLit.

Creative Application
Once students seem comfortable with the terms or if students need a challenge, I introduce students to a digital breakout, "Figuring Out Figurative Language" for additional practice. A digital breakout is an online scavenger hunt-like game where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a series of locks.

In this breakout, students are having trouble communicating with a friend, who at times seems to be speaking a different language, which has caused rift in their relationship. One day, after a lesson in English class, students realize that their friend hasn't been speaking another language; he's just been using figurative language. Armed with that knowledge, students have to interact with a variety of text and media to try to figure out some of their friend's most recent text messages and repair their broken friendship.

In addition to needing content knowledge to successfully complete the game, breakouts require students to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and use creativity. I also love breakouts because they provide students with many opportunities to fail and try again. Every unsuccessful attempt to open a lock forces them to reexamine their information and their thinking.

You can find all of my resources for teaching figurative language here.

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