When teaching figurative language to my students, I like to tell them that it’s like using sugar when baking a cake. Sure, you can bake the cake without it, but it’s going to be a lot less satisfying. And if you do use it, you have to make sure you’re using it properly, or else it won’t do your cake a whole lot of good.
Teaching your 5th grade students to use the different types of figurative language correctly—and in the proper proportions—is essential to helping them become effective writers. These three teaching strategies can help ensure your lessons are as fascinating as a yarn ball is to a cat—and fun to boot!
Strategy #1: Make it Relatable
Modeling figurative language is generally step one in teaching it to your students—after all, it’s much easier to explain with an example than by simply describing what a simile or metaphor is. But if you really want your students to give a hoot, let their interests be your guide and try analyzing something they can really relate to.
Popular music is an especially useful resource for this strategy. Weird Al’s lyrics, for instance, are always a treasure trove of clever puns and alliteration, while Owl City’s “Fireflies” offers a beautiful way to explore, among other things, personification. Go over a few examples of your own choosing, then ask your students to each bring in (classroom-appropriate) lyrics from their own favorite songs to examine and discuss.
Strategy #2: Make it Enjoyable
Making writing fun is also very important when it comes to increasing student engagement. Figurative language, in particular, becomes a million times more interesting to even the most skeptical students when presented as a form of play.
One of my favorite games to play with 5th graders is a twist on the old improv game of “Questions.” It begins with two students and an imaginary setting. One student asks the other a question, and the other must respond with a question of their own. The catch? In the modified version, their question must also contain some form of figurative language. For instance, one student may ask, “Exactly how enormous was the elephant?” An acceptable reply might be, “Would you believe me if I said it was bigger than a house?” The students go back and forth until one or the other cannot come up with a query that incorporates figurative language (or accidentally replies with anything other than a question). That person is “out” and someone else steps in to take their place and continue the game. Last student standing wins!
Strategy #3: Make it Meaningful
Just as a carpenter needs to know both how to use a hammer and what to use it for, so too do your students. They should understand not just when to use onomatopoeia or a pun but also the reasons for doing so. Ask them to consider the possible purposes of figurative language and discuss them as a class. Figurative language is more than just fun—without it, most humor simply wouldn’t exist. It also helps us express abstract ideas more clearly by grounding them in concrete or familiar concepts. Helping your 5th graders see how valuable a tool figurative language can be is a vital step in teaching them to wield it effectively.
Figuring Out Figurative Language
Figurative language isn’t always easy—to teach or to learn—but with the help of these strategies, your students will be crafting expert similes and metaphors in no time. Keeping lessons relatable, enjoyable and meaningful can make all the difference. Publishing the proof of your students’ growing mastery of language in a real book— and seeing their words in print will help build your students’ confidence and motivate them to write using the strategies they’ve learned more freely and more imaginatively than ever.