Complete guide to figurative language for students and teachers.

complete guide to figurative language


figurative language | figurative language description 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

We most often associate figurative language with poetry, but we find figurative language widely used in many other contexts too. We find it in use in everything from fiction and folk music to drama and our daily speech.

The term figurative language refers to any use of language that goes beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves. In many instances, the phrase also refers to instances where the use of sounds, syntax, and word order deviate from what is considered the normal patterns of use. It is this definition that we will explore in this guide.


figurative language | figurative language Unit 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

❤️The use of FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE is like “SPECIAL EFFECTS FOR AUTHORS.” It is a powerful tool to create VIVID IMAGERY through words. This HUGE 110 PAGE UNIT guides you through a complete understanding of FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE as both a READER and WRITER covering.

  • ❤️ IDIOMS
  • ❤️ SIMILES


figurative language | FUN WRITING TASKS 1 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

In both regards mentioned above, figurative language represents a sophisticated, creative use of language to convey meaning and mood among other effects. It represents an important tool in the writer’s toolbox.

These creative applications of language help readers to visualize the writer’s intended meaning, as well as establish atmosphere, rhythm, and other stylistic effects. The use of these literary devices creates an effective and beautiful way to communicate through the written and spoken word.

Using figurative language helps speak to a reader’s emotions, as well as to articulate more abstract and complex concepts in a relatable way. How a writer uses figurative language in their work constitutes a large element of their style.


Figurative language is a broad category that encompasses all types of figures of speech, including sound devices and imagery.

There are lots of different types of figures of speech, but broadly speaking these can helpfully be divided into two groups: tropes and schemes.

In this article, we will look at various examples of figures of speech within these two categories. We will define them, provide an example of how they are used, and provide a straightforward activity that requires minimal preparation and will allow students to practice these in class.



figurative language | Hyperbole eat a horse 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

A trope is a figure of speech that uses words or phrases in a way in which the intended meaning extends beyond the literal meaning of the words used. Some of the most commonly used tropes include metaphor, simile, and personification. But, there are many others. We will take a look at some of the main ones below.



figurative language | HYPERBOLE 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Definition: This figure of speech uses exaggeration for emphasis or other specific effects such as humour, for example. As with other figures of speech, it is not meant to be taken literally by the audience or the reader – they are usually in on it. We often use hyperbole in our daily speech.

Example: I could have died of embarrassment

Task: Give students a list of comparative adjectives. You can differentiate these according to the students’ ages and abilities. Challenge students to compose hyperbole based on each of these adjectives. Use the model phrase ‘brighter than the sun’ to get the ball rolling.

We have a complete guide to hyperbole in literature which can be found here


figurative language | idiom cat is out of the bag 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Definition: An idiom is a figurative use of language that cannot be understood from a literal understanding of the words alone. Idioms are a part of the language and each language develops its own unique idioms over time. Idioms are similar to other figures of speech except that while most other figures of speech can be the original conceptions of the writer, idioms are already in existence within the language. Many of Shakespeare’s figures of speech have become crystallized in the language as the idioms of today.

Example: ‘Kick the bucket / Gave up the ghost / Passed away

Task: You can help students bridge the gap between their understanding of figures of speech and idioms through this activity. Provide students with a list of idioms on various themes. Discuss these and ensure they have a sense of their meaning. Challenge the students to compose their own figures of speech on each of these themes using the sample idiom as a starting point.


figurative language | what is a metaphor 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Definition: A metaphor makes a comparison between two unrelated things by stating one thing is the other thing. This is usually done by highlighting or suggesting a shared quality or characteristic between the two distinct elements.

Example: Life is a rollercoaster

Task: Metaphors are commonly used in speech, poetry, plays, songs, and stories. To give your students practice identifying metaphors in a range of contexts, organize them into groups and provide them with a range of the types of reading materials listed above. Have students read and listen to these materials and identify examples of metaphor in each, compiling a list as they go.


figurative language | oxymoron examples 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Definition: Oxymorons combine two opposing elements into a single phrase or sentence. They can be used to create a range of effects, comedic, dramatic, or thought-provoking.

Example: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Task: Oxymorons are very common in our daily speech, for example ‘seriously funny’, ‘random order’, and ‘pretty ugly’. Organise the students into groups and challenge them to come up with as many other common examples as they can. As an extension exercise, ask the students to compose some original oxymorons too.


Definition: Personification is a special type of metaphor where human actions or feelings are ascribed to a non-human thing. When we talk about something that isn’t human as if it was, then we are personifying it – that is, making it into a person. This figurative use of language is most commonly associated with poetry and literary fiction, but we can often find it in our daily speech too.

Example: An angry sky / Books were her constant companions / That car’s a beauty

Task: Organize the students into pairs. Instruct Partner 1 to compile a list of 10 nouns, these can be inanimate objects such as a pencil, a chair etc or natural phenomenon such as moon, stars, sun etc. Have Partner 2 compile a list of 10 verbs associated with the actions of human beings, for example laugh, tell, sing etc.  When both partners have completed their lists they can use their nouns and verbs to write their own personification sentences.


figurative language | simile explanation 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Definition: Similes make comparisons between two seemingly unrelated elements by using ‘like’ or ‘as’ to highlight a common quality or characteristic both things share. Similes make a comparison by suggesting a similarity between two things, rather than making a comparison by stating that one thing is something else – such as we find with metaphors.

Example: Her eyes shone like diamonds / He was as strong as a horse

Task: Begin this activity by asking students to compile a list of say 10 nouns and 10 adjectives. Challenge the students to form original similes utilising the nouns and the adjectives on their list to set up a simile comparison. For example, if they choose the noun cat and the adjective smart they must generate the final element to complete their simile, for example, The cat is as smart as a computer. They should do this until they have completed a simile for all items on their lists. Encourage them to strike a balance between the similes that use like to make the comparison and those that use as.


Definition: This figure of speech most often occurs when a part of a thing is used to represent the whole of a thing. However, it can also occur when the whole of a thing is used to stand for a part of a thing. The first type is called microcosm and the second, macrocosm. This trope is better conveyed through illustration than explanation.

Example: All hands on deck! (microcosm) / The United States declared war. (macrocosm)

Task: Organize students into groups and give out copies of old newspapers. Challenge the students to spot examples of synecdoche in the various articles and then highlight them. They may wish to use two separate colors for identifying the two different types mentioned above.

figurative language | free writing tasks | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |


Schemes are a figurative use of language that deviates from the usual mechanics of a sentence. This may be in terms of syntax, sound, or word order. Writers can use schemes to create rhythm, musicality, or to draw comparisons or contrasts within a text. They are particularly associated with poetry, as they often work on a rhythmic basis or through sound. Unlike tropes, schemes operate on a sense level more than an intellectual level.


Definition: The repetition of the initial consonant sound of consecutive or near consecutive words for effect. Alliteration is also referred to as head rhyme or initial rhyme.

Example: The slithering snake slid sideways silently

Task: Read some tongue twisters as a class and then challenge the students to produce their own examples.


figurative language | assonance 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Definition: The repetition of vowel sounds within a group of words. As with alliteration, it is the repeating sounds that are important, not the letters.

Example: “Fleet feet sweep by sleeping geeseby Pink Floyd

Task: Assonance can be used to convey different moods. For example, repetition of long, broad ‘o’ and ‘a sounds can express sadness or melancholy. Challenge your students to write a line that uses assonance to express a selected mood.


Definition: The repetition of consonant sounds anywhere in the words that are near each other. This should be distinguished from alliteration, where the repetition is limited to the sounds at the beginning of words. Alliteration is a special type of consonance, so all alliteration is a form of consonance, but not all consonance is alliteration.

Example: “I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells

Task: Give out a worksheet with a mix of unmarked examples of alliteration, consonance, and assonance and have the students sort them into the correct categories. You may want the students to use a Venn diagram so they can more easily categorize those that fit into more than one category.


Definition: Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like the thing they describe. Onomatopoeia is most commonly seen in poetry where its use serves as a powerful tool for the imagination as it imitates the sounds of the things described themselves. A common example of onomatopoeia can be seen in the names of the sounds various animals make.

Example: Woof! Baa! Moo! Oink! Cock-a-doodle-do!

Task: To get your students thinking about onomatopoeia, give them a theme and challenge them to list as many onomatopoeic words as they can around that theme. This can easily be differentiated for various age groups. For example, younger kids can work on animal sounds like those above, while older students can work on a theme such as that of water (drip, splish, splosh, splash, plop etc). For stronger students, simply provide them with a theme and task them with creating their own related and original onomatopoeic words.


Definition: This scheme is also known as a parallel structure and applies to sentences or phrases that employ an identical or very similar structure. Parallelism is often used to bring clarity and emphasis, as well as create a memorable rhythm. Some of history’s most memorable speeches and statements used parallelism to great effect and these have stayed with us for many decades as a result. Neil Armstrong’s reported words on the moon landing and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech being prime examples.

figurative language | parrellalism 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

Example: “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for Neil Armstrong.

Task: Provide students with sample sentences that do not use a parallel structure within them. Challenge the students to rewrite the sentences to incorporate a parallel structure into the new sentences. For example, give the students the following sentence:

Do you prefer spicy chicken, pork, or salty fish for the main course?

Students should work to recognize that the underlying structure involves an adjective preceding two of the food options and should rewrite the sentence to include one for the pork. Answers will of course vary, but all are valid as long as they conform to the pattern. For example:

Do you prefer spicy chicken, sweet pork, or salty fish for the main course?

Go Figure!

These are just some of the various ways that language is commonly used figuratively. There are many more of course, though some of these can be quite rarely used. It’s best to start with these more common ones first, before moving onto some of the more complex literary devices available.

Spending some time working on figurative language in isolation will help students to understand how to use the various figures of speech in their own writing.

But, to use them in a confident and unselfconscious manner will require lots of reinforcement in their use throughout the school year.

While early attempts to weave them into their own writing may seem stilted and unnatural, with time and practice they will become part of a student’s personal style and help enable them to articulate and express their thoughts in an artistic and coherent manner.


figurative language | figurative language Unit 1 | Figurative Language for Students and Teachers |

❤️The use of FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE is like “SPECIAL EFFECTS FOR AUTHORS.” It is a powerful tool to create VIVID IMAGERY through words. This HUGE 110 PAGE UNIT guides you through a complete understanding of FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE as both a READER and WRITER covering.

  • ❤️ IDIOMS
  • ❤️ SIMILES


The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh.  A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here.  Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.