Figurative language

Figurative language creates comparisons by linking the senses and the concrete to abstract ideas. Words or phrases are used in a non-literal way for particular effect, for example simile, metaphor, personification. Figurative language may also use elements of other senses, as in hearing with onomatopoeia, or in combination as in synaesthesia.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two usually dissimilar things. The comparison uses like, as or as if.

  • Metaphor – A metaphor makes a resemblance between one thing and another declared by suggesting that one thing is another, for example, ‘My fingers are ice’. Metaphors are common in spoken and written language.
  • Personification – A figure of speech which attributes human characteristics to abstractions such as love or things . For example:
    • The trees sighed and moaned in the wind.
  • Idiom – An idiom is an expression peculiar to a language that cannot be taken literally. For example, 'I’ve got a frog in my throat’.

Activity 1: Similes

This activity can be done as a prewriting planning strategy in a guided whole-class setting (interactive whiteboard [IWB] or display board) or in small groups by students using a blank page. Use student groupings that suit the learning area and your students’ learning context.

Exploring the way writers and illustrators have described characters in narratives provides students with models of how to describe characters in their own writing. Choose books that explore these aspects both visually and in words.

  1. Select a passage to read out loud.
  2. Begin the mind map with the word/s that describes the characters.
  3. Involve students in matching the description of the characters to their images. After matching the descriptions and comparing the character representations introduce the word 'like'.
    • I noticed that you were using the word 'like' in your descriptions when you were comparing your characters.
  4. Discuss how characters' physical and emotional descriptions can be like other things. Give examples of similes in each category below and ask students to provide other examples:
    • How it feels compared to how something else feels:
      • His skin was as slippery as plastic.
      • Her skin was like satin.
    • How it looks compared to how something else looks:
      • His hair was as spiky as toothbrush bristles.
      • His hands were wrinkled like prunes.
    • How it smells compared to how something else smells:
      • The air was as spicy as pepper.
      • The room smelt like rotting fruit.
    • How a character behaves compared with something else:
      • He ran like a cheetah through the school gate.
  5. Complete some similes on the whiteboard together.
    • As sly as a ...
    • As slippery as a ...
    • As sneaky as a ...
    • As quiet as a ...
    • As brave as a ...

Activity 2: Metaphors

Display these examples of metaphors on the interactive whiteboard (IWB).

  • The smoke was cotton balls billowing from the chimney.
  • You are my hero.
  • The sun was a furnace.

Explain the examples – the bolded words are metaphors, the second word or phrase renames the first.

Students complete the following activities.

  1. Below are sentences that contain similes and metaphors. Underline the two words in each sentence that are being compared.

    1. The cat’s fur was a blanket of warmth.
    2. The lamp was a beacon of sunshine.
    3. The fireworks were a lantern in the sky.
    4. John slept like a log.
    5. Mary was as sweet as pie.
  2. Identify the sentences by writing ‘S’ for simile or ‘M’ for metaphor next to each.
  3. Below are several sentences. If a metaphor is present, write a simile to take its place. If a simile is present, write a metaphor to take its place. It is fine to slightly modify your sentences in your answers.
    1. Barbara is as hungry as a horse
    2. The car was a jet when it passed by us.
    3. The music was as soothing as rain.
    4. The grass is a green carpet for the golfers.
    5. The inside of the car was a refrigerator.
    6. His stomach was a bottomless pit.
  4. Write the following sentence on the board: 'This room is an oven!' Ask the class the question: 'Am I saying that this room is actually an oven?' Have students give reasons for their answer and discuss their interpretations as a class. Write possible meanings on the board.

Explain the importance of metaphors in our daily conversations and how authors use metaphors to aid their writing. Write these sentences to model the activity for the class.

The motorcycle was an angry, snarling animal.

Explain how the sounds and the movement of a motorcycle can remind us of an angry animal. Call students' attention to the items being compared.

Have students mimic with body movements and so on. 'Tom was a pig during lunch.' Ask the class for the meaning of this metaphor. Call their attention to the two items being compared. Possible answers: He ate every bit of his food. He made funny noises while he ate all of his food.

Metaphor printable worksheet activities

Activity 3: Personification

  • Explain to students that they will be reading poems that contain examples of personification, one type of figurative language used in writing. Use the following questions to discuss personification and arrive at a definition. After a brief discussion, establish with students that personification is the attribution of human qualities (such as emotion) and actions to nonhuman objects or ideas.
    • What word do you notice inside the word personification?
    • How does the word 'person' give you a clue as to the meaning of personification?
    • Why do you think a writer would want to use personification in a poem?
  • Introduce the poem 'The Sky is Low' by Emily Dickinson to students. Conduct a choral reading, assigning different students to each read one line of the poem. Ask students to try and define any unfamiliar vocabulary (for example, diadem) using the context of the poem, providing definitions when they are unable to determine what a word means.

The Sky is Low by Emily Dickinson

The sky is low, the clouds are  mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.
A narrow wind complains all day
How someone treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

Poet's corner – Emily Dickinson

  • Ask students to identify examples of personification in the poem. Discuss why Dickinson has chosen to personify the weather. Questions for discussion include:
    • What kind of words does she use to set the mood of the poem?
    • Can you think of other words that might do the same thing?
    • How does she intensify the image of an unpleasant day by using personification
    • What does she compare nature to? Why do you think she does this

Display student responses.

  • Read and discuss 'April Rain Song' by Langston Hughes

April Rain Song by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain

  • Possible questions for discussion include:
    • What are Langston Hughes' feelings toward rain?
    • What does he want his audience to do?
    • How does personification help him make his point?
    • How is his use of personification different from that of Dickinson?
    • What do you notice about the language he uses to describe the rain? How does he use repetition to make his point?
  • Ask students to compare and contrast the two poems. Some suggested questions are as follows.
    • What are the different moods of each poem?
    • How does the use of personification by each poet contribute to the mood of his or her poem?
    • What are the different types of words and patterns that each poet uses?
    • Which poem do you like the best? Why?
  • Here is a sample of a short paragraph that uses personification to describe a house.
  • Our house is an old friend of ours. Although he creaks and groans with every gust of wind, he never fails to protect us from the elements. He wraps his arms of bricks and mortar around us and keeps us safe. He’s always been a good friend to us and we would never leave him.

    • Underline all words and phrases above that show personification.
  • Finish the sentences below with examples of personification. Remember to choose a word that would normally be a characteristic or an action of a human.
    • The snow whispered as it fell to the ground.
    • The printer __________________ out the copies that I printed.
    • The car __________________ as the key was turned.
    • The stars ______________________ at us from the night sky.
    • The chocolate cake was __________________ my name.
    • The old refrigerator _____________________ a sad tune as it ran.
  • Personification video lesson

Activity 4 – Idioms

  1. Read aloud the book More Parts by Tedd Arnold. Discuss the text with students, asking about the idioms presented and what they mean in comparison to what the main character translates them to mean.
  2. Brainstorm other idioms that students have heard. To get the discussion started, ask students what they know about the phrases 'it's raining cats and dogs' and 'saved by the bell.' Ask them to draw upon their personal experiences and background knowledge to discuss these idioms and any others that they can think of. For each personal experience, ask the student to describe how the idiom was used and how he or she was able to decipher the figurative meaning. Prompting question might include:
    1. Have you heard anyone in your family (like your parents or grandparents) use idioms when speaking?
    2. Which idioms do you use?
    3. Have you heard idioms used in television programs or movies?
  3. On the white board, list all of the idioms mentioned during the class discussion and refer to the list as needed during the remainder of the lesson. Discuss how some idioms are passed down through generations. This discussion gives students a preliminary introduction to the historical meaning of idioms.
  4. Develop a class definition of idioms. Write the definition on paper and hang the sheet on the wall for reference purposes.
  5. Have students select their favourite idiom from the list and draw a literal representation of the phrase. Model this activity on paper by selecting an idiom and roughly drawing a literal representation of it. For example, the phrase 'it's raining cats and dogs' can be shown by drawing a picture of a storm cloud with cats and dogs falling as raindrops. Instruct students to include the literal drawing on one side of a sheet of paper and to write the idiom on the back. Have the class try and guess the idiom drawn.

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