Figurative language uses figures of speech including metaphors, similes, idioms, and personification. It typically describes something by comparing it with something different. Figurative language can be challenging for multilingual learners to understand. This is particularly true for newcomer and beginning English Language Learners (ELLs) as they are still learning literal language. Here are some strategies and ideas for teaching figurative language to ELLs.
Culture plays a role in figurative language. Metacognition helps students to understand when they encounter figurative phrases (Palmer, Bilgili, Gungor, & Taylor 2008). For newcomers consider having them try and find examples of figurative language in their native language. Not all examples will directly translate.
Have Students Illustrate Examples of Figurative Language
After showing students examples of figurative language have them choose one to draw a picture of. Drawing can help ELLs process new information and show their understanding.
Using illustrations and other pictures is a helpful strategy for ELLs. This can help students understand that figurative language is not meant to be taken literally.
Sort simple examples
Sorting examples of different types of figurative language can help students learn how to identify them. Give them a simple definition of a few types of figurative language and short examples. Then have students sort the examples into the different types.
Use Picture Books
There are many examples of figurative language in picture books. The story and illustrations of the book can help engage students as they learn about new vocabulary terms. There are many books that have characters from diverse backgrounds and have examples of figurative language.
Family Poems for Every Day of the Week: Poemas Familiares Para Cada Dia de la Semana (English and Spanish Edition)– This book is a collection of poems about the days of the week. The author Francisco X. Alarcon used his experiences as a child to write the poems. The poems are short and have examples of similes and metaphors.
The Upside Down Boy / El niño de cabeza– In this poetic story full of metaphors, Juanito goes to school for the first time and has to learn English. His family and teacher help him navigate his new school.
Drumbeat in Our Feet– In this book the reader learns about the forms and processes of different types of African dance. On the left side of the page is informational text about African dance and on the right page of short poems. The poems have onomatopoeia and brightly colored pictures.
Use Content Topics
One way to have students practice creating their own examples of figurative language is to integrate this into the content area. If students are studying natural disasters they could create examples using that topic.
Metaphone You are as loud as a thunderstorm.
Simile Your room looks like a tornado.
Use Tongue Twisters
Tongue twisters are a fun way to introduce alliteration. Students are able to practice fluency skills by reading the tongue twisters. They are also a simple way to let lower ELLs practice phonics skills. Students can identify words that begin with target letter sounds in the tongue twisters.
Resources for Teaching Figurative Language
Free Figurative Language Poster
Get a copy of this FREE Figurative Language Poster.
These Figurative Language Task Cards come with a short sentence that has figurative language and a picture along with multiple choice examples of the type of figurative language.
Figurative Language Sorting Cards
Use these Figurative Language Sorting Cards for students to sort simple illustrated examples of figurative language.
Idiom File Folder Puzzles
Students match pictures with the meaning of idioms in these Idiom File Folder Puzzles.
- Palmer, Bilgili, Gungor, & Taylor (2008) Reading Comprehension, Figurative Language Instruction and the Turkish English Language Learner. Reading Horizons