I want to be very honest about this: I struggled writing the title of this article using the word “mistakes” because I don’t want teachers to feel like there’s one more thing I’m doing wrong. That’s not the heart of this at all. And let’s be perfectly clear: I’ve made ALL of these mistakes MULTIPLE times, and the reason I’m writing this now is that time, experience, training, and more experience have taught me more effective ways to do a part of our job. I wish I would have recognized these things about my attempts to teach figurative language earlier in my career. It would have prevented me from a lot of self-doubt and helped me grow my students into much more critical thinkers.

None of these “mistakes” are harmful to students. And if you’re finding these methods to be highly effective for your population, by all means, keep it up! But if you’re feeling like this is the 1,000,000,000th time you’ve tried to get kids to define “metaphor” and it’s still not sticking, stay with me.

Let’s start with our WHY

Always start here. Why do we teach the terminology, examples, functions, and use of figurative language in literature and poetry? For me, it boils down to a few important things:

  • These devices create an intentional effect. Analysis of the effect is important in understanding the message, the purpose, and the experience the audience is supposed to have.

  • These devices contribute to character development. If we value character complexity and development, being sensitive to the nuances in the details authors use to describe them requires an understanding of figurative language.

  • Many of these literary devices overlap with our study of rhetoric. Recognizing the tone of a particular metaphor or simile used in a speech, commercial, or other argument is important, so it’s highly valuable that this practice overlaps into two skill areas.

ONE: Rote Teaching Terminology (in isolation and otherwise)

Raise your hand if the first unit of your school year is a short story unit with figurative language terminology review? Yes? This is unit one in thousands of English classrooms and this makes me wonder…if they’ve done this so many times, why aren’t they experts? How is it that by unit 2, the next time we encounter an example of personification, they’ve forgotten the term altogether?

The thought process here is logical: provide terms, provide definitions, provide examples, practice, practice practice = learning has succeeded. But we see this doesn’t actually happen. So what’s not working?

Well, the first issue here is that language isn’t logical. And what we actually end up seeing is that the amount of time and energy we place on learning terms tells students that this is the most important part of the process. We know this is not the case (go back and look at our WHY), but in our teacher minds, we think: if they can’t identify a metaphor, how can they ANALYZE a metaphor?

I use to think this too. But then, after an Advance Placement Summer Institue, I was convinced to let go of terminology and see what happened. While close reading chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby students pointed out this line: “Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and
gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward.” The students noted the use of the phrase “arrogant eyes” and debated how it should be identified. Was it personification? Eyes are a non-human object and certainly can’t possess the human trait of arrogance. Was it diction? Specific word choice Fitzgerald was using to create an effect?

I interjected and asked, “Tell me this: if you didn’t have to label the device Fitzgerald is using here, what would you say about this phrase anyway? Or if I told you that both labels work equally well, what do you have to say about the effect they have on characterizing Tom?”

I realized in this moment how little the term actually mattered. What mattered was that they did identify a critical description of a character. Call it diction, personification, description, connotation — that didn’t really matter in the end. But what I also realized is that students who get stuck here at this step, choosing the right term, would rarely make it to the next (and much more important) step of analyzing how this orients the reader to Tom’s character.

Releasing the pressure off of students to “correctly” identify figurative language terms might just help us move the conversation into the harder task. I give you permission to take your hands off the wheel a bit and instead of drilling them with terms, give them a word bank. Build a class website full of rich beautiful examples that you see all throughout the year. Correct students when an interpretation is completely off, but only when it has prevented them from accurate and thoughtful analysis.

NEED HELP KEEPING THE BIG PICTURE IN MIND? YOU NEED AN ESSENTIAL QUESTION AT THE HEART OF YOUR UNIT.

THE ESSENTIAL QUESTION ADVENTURE PACKS ARE HERE TO HELP.

TWO: Assessing Definitions

Let’s go back to our WHY again: if the goal of teaching figurative language is to move students toward rich analysis, then what does assessing definitions do to help us reach that goal? Let’s look at these two definitions as an example:

EXTENDED METAPHOR: a metaphor introduced and then further developed throughout all or part of a literary work, especially a poem

SYMBOLISM: the practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character.

By definition, these two devices seem to have clear differences but put into practice, students have some good questions about the blurry line between the two. In Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies, the butterfly serves as an extended metaphor (or is it a motif?) throughout the novel. Students asked me every year, “But isn’t the butterfly a symbol for the girls and the rebellion?” And year after year I carefully explained that metaphor was a better term to use because metaphor requires comparison whereas a symbol is more of a stand-in. The layers of meaning are comparative to the sisters and their experiences and metamorphosis as they grow into rebels.

The famous “Green Light” of Gatsby’s world is a symbol, though. It’s an object that pretty much means the same thing throughout the text and represents a wide variety of interpretations of ideas and emotions for Gatsby.

So here’s the mistake I realized I was making: this level of understanding how language devices function, especially in long works (as opposed to poetry), cannot be assessed by asking kids to define terms. Also, as outlined above in Mistake One, does it really matter? Does it really matter if a student discusses the butterfly as a symbol instead of a metaphor? Or the Green Light as an extended metaphor instead of a symbol? If the analysis in the sentences that come after are spot-on, insightful, accurate, and lined up with the rest of the work, I think we should let it go. I’d rather spend time here, in the text, having hard conversations, than reviewing terms or assessing students on the definitions of terms.

THREE: Teaching Too Many Terms

If you’ve ever bitten off more than you can chew, you’re in good company here. I am notorious for getting super excited about a poem or a book and trying to teach ALL THE THINGS. My excitement and enthusiasm will make the kids engaged, write?

Oof. I couldn’t be more wrong. Too many terms in the lesson or even in the unit is a recipe for disengagement and burnout. This happened to me often with close reading things like Shakespeare or even other types of poetry. Repetitiotition here! Metaphor there! Synecdoche here! Allegory everywhere! Crash and BURN.

FOUR: FORGETTABLE EXAMPLES & Lack of “Flashbulb” Moments

If you haven’t yet read Keeping the Wonder, then maybe you haven’t stumbled across the concept of a “flashbulb” moment or memory. The authors write, “When we think about the moments that stand out in our memory, it’s clear that our minds hold onto the unusual or unexpected. By tapping into students’ innate curiosity, you can design memorable, meaningful learning experiences that captivate their interest and ignite their imaginations.” (Keeping the Wonder, 2021)

This concept is vital in our instruction of particularly important literary devices. I found that when I was scraping for examples to teach definitions or make flashcards on Quizlet, the examples were often unoriginal and oversimplified. Slowly but surely, I started building up a bank of device examples that were so powerful that they were unforgettable. My favorite flashbulb literary device lesson was in teaching juxtaposition, of all things.

This was our juxtaposition flashbulb moment: the ballet scene from The Phantom of the Opera. I haven’t taught the film in a long time, but the memory of this juxtaposition lesson is still crystal clear all these years later. I even get Facebook messages from former students every now and again about this, and it cracks me up! In the scene, the Phantom is chasing the stagehand (who knows too much) back and forth across the rafters of the stage. Below them, a spring ballet, complete with sheep, goats, and baby’s breath, is underway. As the Phantom closes in on his victim (darkness, impending death), the ballet swiftly picks up pace (spring, light, and full of life). The scene ends with a shocking murder of the stagehand, giving students the perfect moment to examine WHY the juxtaposition as an artistic decision works in the scene.

Trigger warning: This scene ends with a hanging

The success of this moment, of slowing down and spending almost two class periods on one literary device (which was not the original plan, by the way!) taught me, once again, that less is more. Did I cram through a huge list of lit terms that year? No. But did my student have a life long impression, memory, and deep analysis practice with one challenging device? Yep. And we still remember it.

FIVE: Missing the Structure of Spiraling

Vertical alignment might be one of the biggest struggles for English departments across the globe. In the coaching work I’ve done with schools, I’ve found that the single-most source of frustration for teachers is that they don’t actually have a hold on what students learned before they got to them or where exactly they’re headed after their class. Teachers crave autonomy, and rightfully so, but autonomy can quickly lead to isolation and problems with skill-building.

The instruction of literary devices and figurative language analysis should ideally be spiraled across grade levels with intentionality. When grade levels select texts, standards, and essential questions are built in curriculum design, this is a layer to consider adding. Here’s an example of what that could look like and figurative language focal points that would work nicely:

FRESHMEN:

  • Metaphor: Long Way Down

  • Imagery: Children of Blood and Bone

  • Point of View: Frankenstein

SOPHOMORES:

  • Juxtaposition: The Phantom of the Opera

  • Extended Metaphor: In the Time of the Butterflies

  • Personification: Fahrenheit 451

JUNIORS:

  • Symbolism: The Great Gatsby

  • Paradox: Macbeth

  • Parallel Plot Structure: A Thousand Splendid Suns

SENIORS:

  • Allegory: The Life of Pi

  • Point of View: Homegoing

  • Flashback: The Handmaid’s Tale

Clearly, these aren’t the only things that each particular unit would cover, but having in mind the flashbulb memory opportunities that naturally exist in each text helps spiral the skills. Now, each teacher knows where each of these devices is highlighted (we’re not skipping everything else, just giving extra attention to these each year), and can align their expectations of students accordingly.

You are watching: 5 Common Mistakes Teachers Make When Teaching Figurative Language — Mud and Ink Teaching. Info created by GBee English Center selection and synthesis along with other related topics.