figurative language skills

Think of your favorite book, either the one you read to your students or the one you read on your own when you’re not teaching the leaders of tomorrow. Is it written the whole way through? Of course not! That’s because figurative language is a powerful literary tool that allows writers to create more expressive and engaging narratives.

However, learning more abstract writing and figurative language techniques can be challenging, especially for elementary students! The key is to use engaging activities developed with young learners in mind to enhance your students’ understanding and use of figurative language. When work becomes play, learning comes naturally.

In this blog post, we will share our 9 favorite, most engaging and fun activities that you can use to strengthen your students’ figurative language skills.

What is Figurative Language?

Figurative language is using language in a nonliteral way that still conveys the mental or emotional truth of a situation. Most people learn to intuitively identify and understand figurative language when used in everyday life and respond appropriately.

Very young students can sometimes find this to be confusing or frustrating. Figurative language for kids is like a code they’re still learning. It can be a shock for kids to realize that people don’t always mean what they say literally. Figuring out how to effectively use this nonliteral mode of communication is more subtle than it first appears, and knowing how to get it right can be the difference between an accurate but dull piece of writing and a more complex, vivid piece of writing that engages and entertains the reader.

Common examples of figurative language for elementary students include:

  • Metaphors: describing something with a word or phrase that isn’t true
  • Similes: a simile is like a metaphor, except it uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to apply the description
  • Personification: describing an object or non-human animal as if it is a person
  • Hyperbole: exaggeration
  • Alliteration: using a repeating first letter or syllable in adjacent words
  • Onomatopoeia: words that describe a sound
  • Idioms: phrases or expressions that are understood to convey a nonliteral meaning that is commonly understood

Elementary figurative language activities will help teach students to understand how to identify, analyze and evaluate figurative language. In addition to becoming better writers and communicators, this will also help improve your students’ reading comprehension and set them on the path to becoming stronger, more discerning readers as they progress in their academic careers.

9 Fun Figurative Language Activities for the Classroom

Consider the Bard

Shakespeare is a master of figurative language and literary devices—as he should be since he’s credited for inventing many of them! Using the works of Shakespeare to teach figurative language is an excellent place to start because any of his plays or sonnets feature many different examples for your students to find, explore and analyze.

If your class isn’t quite ready to dive into the Bard himself, try starting with a story for young audiences that takes inspiration from one of Shakespeare’s classics!

Here’s a list to get started:

  • Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), as you probably imagine, follows the plot of Romeo and Juliet
  • The Lion King (1994) follows the same basic plot as Hamlet
  • The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998) also follows the plot of Romeo and Juliet
  • Strange Magic (2015) follows the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • The television show Gargoyles (originally airing from 1994-1997) regularly borrowed from the various works of Shakespeare

Referencing and discussing the Shakespeare adaptations your students have already watched can be a shortcut for introducing them to the original works. This discussion can be an easy figurative language activity since there’s no prep work required as long as your students are familiar with the movie.

Sharing examples from media they might not have experienced yet, like clips from the retro cartoon show Gargoyles or the original animated Lion King, can be a fun way to close out other figurative language lessons.

Shakespeare’s original work, or translations created especially for young learners, are invaluable resources for quickly finding quick examples of figurative language to use in the classroom.

Famous Figurative Language

Feed 2 birds with 1 scone by adding some history to your figurative language lesson or adding some figurative language to your history lesson!

  • Set up stations around the classroom with selections of different task cards.
  • On each card, include a picture of a famous historical figure, a sentence or two explaining their historical significance and a quote where they used figurative language.
  • Have students circulate around the room with a notebook to record the name of one historical figure from each station and attempt to identify the type of figurative language used in their quote.
  • After everyone has an answer for one card from each station, check the answers and clarify any confusion.
  • Lead a short classroom discussion about which quote students liked the best and why, or which historical figure they liked the most and how that person’s quote relates to that person’s place in history.

Literary Devices in the Wild

When it comes to finding examples of figurative language in the wild, it doesn’t get much wilder than text messages! Beyond being a fun variation of the usual lessons, young learners are incredibly engaged in activities related to communication technologies like text messaging and social media. Use this as a shortcut for gaining their attention and keeping them focused.

  • Find or create pre-written text message conversations (you can find meme-style templates online to make these look like a screen grab of an actual text thread).
  • Ask your classroom to quickly identify a set number of figurative language types used in the text convo.
  • Have them consider what their texts would sound like if they didn’t use figurative language. Do they think talking to people without figurative language would be easier? Would it be more or less clear? More or less dull?
  • Lead a classroom discussion debating the benefits and drawbacks of using figurative language. Are there times when you definitely should or should not use figurative language? How do you know?

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Text Message Micro Fiction

Once your students are more familiar with the common types of figurative language often used in everyday life, challenge them to write their own micro-fiction stories in the form of a text message thread.

  • Hand out a worksheet with a blank text message bubble template on a phone screen (add a bit of visual art to the lesson by encouraging them to illustrate and color the phone background however they would like).
  • Next, ask them to think of a short story that can be told in the space of the messages on the worksheet. Taking time to plan here is crucial!
  • Then, challenge them to include 3-5 instances of figurative language in their story.
  • Finally, ask volunteers to take turns reading their story and challenge the class to identify the different types of figurative language used.

As a follow-up, lead a short classroom discussion about the different types of figurative language students chose. Which was the most popular? Why did students prefer it? Are there any types they’re still unsure of how to use? This is a great time to check-in and clarify anything students are unclear about!

Close Reading to Find Figurative Language

Close reading is a technique used to evaluate writing by analyzing it sentence by sentence and sometimes word by word. In an elementary school classroom, close reading means reading each sentence carefully to identify the literary devices being used and how effective they are.

Your students can closely read any narrative writing, including fiction or nonfiction books, short stories, poetry, song lyrics, manga or comic books and sometimes even found media like notes or shopping lists!

Once your students have chosen or been assigned their narrative writing example, ask them to do a close reading to identify the figurative language. Next, ask them to consider why that particular type of figurative language was used and whether they believe it was effective. If yes, why? If not, how would they improve it?

Rewrite Popular Song Lyrics

For some students, the codebreaking that goes into learning how to interpret figurative language can be quite a task, and sometimes the key to unlocking this understanding is identifying and writing literary devices. Music is one of many types of media that heavily rely on figurative language to convey the mental and emotional truth of situations without any strict loyalty to the literal truth of what happened.

One way to help young learners crack the figurative language code is by assigning them a decoding task:

  • Play a popular, age-appropriate song for your classroom. Encourage the class to sing and dance along if they’d like!
  • Display the lyrics of the song so the whole classroom can see them.
  • Ask your class to “translate” the figurative language into what really happened. This can be serious or comedic, and students should be encouraged to strive for originality while not replacing figurative language with more figurative language.

Figurative Language Lyrics Seek and Find

Song lyrics are also an excellent place to turn when looking for media that will give a good “figurative language hunt”:

  • Show a complete song or a couple of verses, depending on how much time you intend to spend on the activity.
  • Give your class a set amount of time to identify all the figurative language in the selected song lyrics.
  • After the time is up, do a quick review to ensure everyone can find and correctly identify all uses of figurative language.

Choose One (and Only One)

As either an introduction or a capstone to your figurative language lessons, challenge your students to think about which type of figurative language is their favorite. If they could only use one kind of figurative language for the rest of their lives and none of the others, which would they choose?

List all of the types of figurative language and literary devices you will cover or have covered on the board or in a shared document your entire classroom has access to. Pose the challenge and ask your students to write a few paragraphs about their favorite, explaining why it’s the only type of figurative language they need.

Tip: Having students try this activity both before and after you’ve done a classroom deep dive about the different types of figurative language can help your students practice re-evaluating their opinions after gaining new knowledge.

For an additional challenge, ask your students to only use their favorite type of figurative language and no others when speaking throughout the day. If they use a different type by mistake, ask the rest of the class to gently point it out and identify the type they used. By the end of the day, your whole class will have a new appreciation for all the different kinds of figurative language!

Help Your Students Become Published Authors!

Another fun, free and engaging way to strengthen your students’ figurative language skills is by publishing a book with your class with one of our FREE classbook publishing kits! Simply sign up online and we’ll provide everything you need to publish your students’ writing and illustrations, including any help you need along the way.

Any of the learning activities shared here are wonderful prompts for your classbook project. Each of your students will contribute one page of writing and one page of illustration to help create a unique memory from their time spent learning in your classroom—you’ll get a free classroom copy and parents can also order copies to keep at home!

Check out our blog and online Teacher’s Lounge for more writing activities, lesson plans and teaching strategies. Now that you have more figurative language activities to use in your classroom, you’re better equipped to help your students set out on the path to writing more vivid and engaging narratives that will captivate everyone from family and friends to their future college admissions panel!