Figuring Out Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of that it only seems fitting to share some thoughts about poetry. In general, I want students to enjoy poetry—to be moved, delighted, heartened, or tickled by a poet’s rhythms and words—rather than to dissect it. Or as Billy Collins puts it in his wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I want them to:

. . . to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colored slide

rather than to:

. . . tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

But I also know that sometimes it’s hard to enjoy what you don’t understand, and many students are simply perplexed when they hit figurative language, especially poems that hinge on metaphors, like this one from Eve Merriam, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Do:

© 1986 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner in What Readers Really Do. © 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

In the book, we use the poem as an example of a text whose meaning cannot easily be accessed through the usual line-up of comprehension strategies. Predicting, questioning, connecting, inferring: none of them used by themselves would yield much. And as for visualizing, here’s what happened the other day when I shared Merriam’s poem with a class of fifth graders for a lesson on figurative language.

When I read the poem most of the students responded with a dumbfounded “Huh?” And when I asked them to turn and talk about what they thought the poet might be trying to say, almost all of them came up with an idea borne from visualizing: They pictured the narrator lying on the ground with a blade of grass behind her. And from the right angle they imagined it could look like the grass was coming out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

What they did here was use a strategy to make sense of the poem on a literal level—that is, they envisioned the narrator and a real blade of grass that, through a kind of optical illusion, appeared to be emerging from the narrator’s forehead. But they couldn’t get beyond the literal level, which is hardly ever where deeper meaning lies. So I pulled out the following teaching point, which I had tucked up my sleeve:

Sometimes, I said, poets don’t literally mean what they say, and  one of our first jobs as readers is to consider whether something in the poem might not mean exactly what it says. I then asked them to turn and talk again about whether they thought anything in the poem might not be meant literally, and as the teacher and I moved around the room, we overhead the word ‘metaphor’ coming up in the students’ discussions.

When we shared out, everyone agreed that the narrator of the poem hadn’t really become a unicorn (though there still was some disagreement about the blade of grass). They could identify it as a metaphor, but they didn’t know, as readers, what to do with it. So I offered the following instruction: Once readers have decided that something might not literally mean what it says—i.e., that it might be a metaphor—they try to brainstorm words associated with the metaphor, thinking about the characteristics or qualities of the thing being compared. Then they take those words back to the poem to see they can help them understand more.

You could say I was asking them to make a connection, though it wasn’t of the “I once had a unicorn lunchbox” variety. I asked them to make a particular kind of connection for a particular purpose that was based on how some particular poems worked. And when I gave them another chance to turn and talk, they came up with words like this:

                    • Magical
                    • Beautiful
                    • Mythic
                    • Amazing
                    • Glittery
                    • Sparkling
                    • Girlie
                    • One of a Kind
                    • Special

They then took these words back to the poem (discarding girlie, which they decided didn’t fit) and came up with new interpretations. This time around they thought the poet might be trying to say that the first day of spring was magical or that it can make you feel sparkling and special—or tingly in a good way. Then to give them more chance to practice this, we divided the class up into groups and gave them each another poem to look at that required the same kind of thinking, along with a piece of chart paper on which they could share what they came up with. And the thinking they did was great.

One group, for instance, looked at “Black Box” from Nikki Grimes‘s novel Bronx Masquerade, which pairs prose monologues with poems by different characters. The poem begins with the lines “In case I forgot to tell you/I’m allergic to boxes,” and after wrestling with it for a while, they decided that the narrator wasn’t literally allergic to boxes but rather had a bad reaction (i.e., was allergic) to being contained or packaged (the boxes) with words like jock or geek.

And here’s the chart of the group that looked at Lindamichellebaron‘s poem “Even Weeds Have Needs,” which begins:

Even weeds have needs, you know,

Don’t make me creep through cracks,

or race for space to grow.

Poet feels as if she is "weed"→ unwanted, but she still needs someone to take care of her.

Poet feels as if she is being stamped on.

These students engaged in exactly the kind of thinking experienced readers do invisibly all the time. And I have no doubt that eventually these students will be able to do so invisibly as well, provided they have additional opportunities to engage in what a New Yorker article on coaching calls “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”

According to the article’s author Atul Gawande, expertise “requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.” This lesson helped students first become aware of what they couldn’t do and then of what they could do through deliberate effort. And having made that visible for them, the students are now better positioned to do the work automatically, without the need of charts.

It will also allow them to enjoy poems more, which is, after all, the whole point. So for students who struggle with metaphors, remember:

Snowflake vs. Snowdrift Metaphors from

10 thoughts on “Figuring Out Figurative Language

  1. Vicki, thank you for your blog and for sharing all of your fantastic ideas. You keep me inspired and believing that I can teach the way I want to. My district is so bogged down in mandates right now that I feel like I am losing myself. After 16 years in the profession, I am feeling beaten. I plan to purchase and study your book over the summer so that I can return refreshed next fall. Thank you for sharing yourself and keeping my fire alive.

    • Just know that you’re not alone, Stacey. This has been the most stressful and demoralizing year I’ve every seen, and it breaks my heart to see teachers so crushed by the system. I think I started the blog because I had so much material left over from the book. But increasingly I find myself turning to it as a refuge from the forces that seem bent on zapping every shred of joy and true learning from classrooms. I want to believe, though, that with all the outcry and push back against the culture of standardized testing and teacher blaming, the tide has to turn at some point. And in the meantime, it’s so very good to know how many of us are out there eager to do real meaningful work.

  2. This is such a wise and beautiful post, reminding us to take that time to turn to our neighbors not once to talk. But twice. And deeply. And again. I am about to link to this right now. Thank you once again, Vicki. Your voice in this work is so important to me. a.

    • It’s all about the talk, isn’t it–and time to talk, which increasingly feels in such short demand these days. Thanks so much for your link to this. I’m honored to be part of the community you’ve created.

  3. I found your blog through the Poetry Farm link on Facebook today. This is a great post filled with lesson ideas I will use. Thank you for sharing! I look forward to digging into your blog further.

  4. Wow, I really love this post and the rest of your blog! It is giving me so many ideas and making me rethink how I do reading workshop with my students. We are in the middle of a poetry unit and I think I will share the poem, The First Day of Spring, with my 5th grade students! I will def. include your blog on my blogroll here: . I hope you will check it out! 🙂

    • Thanks so much for writing, Jee. I just took you up on the invitation to check out your blog, and joy is the word I’m trying to hold on to in 2012, too! I also wondered if any of the bookstore pics were from my own favorite bookstore in Paris, The Red Wheelbarrow on rue St. Paul. Either way it’s great to connect with teachers around the world.

  5. Pingback: Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems | To Make a Prairie

  6. Pingback: After English Class: Some Thoughts On Reading Poetry | To Make a Prairie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s