Activate Thinking With Figurative Language

Reading comprehension requires many steps and the activation of several areas of our brain. Our students must first understand symbols and what they mean (letters), process how these symbols are linked or put together (rules of vowels, word families, suffixes, prefixes, etc.), decode the words on the page, change the tone of their voices based on the decoding and simultaneously comprehending what the text means. Not an easy task especially for children who have not been exposed to a variety of language and words.  This lack of exposure causes a language deficit which keeps students from having sufficient background knowledge to make sense of text they are reading and the repetition of sounds and exposures to text.


Language makes up 20-25% of the End of Grade tests for grades 3-5.  The tested language standards focus on finding unknown words and phrases using context clues and the understanding of word parts and syntax.  In addition, it covers figurative language, word relationships and the “nuance” of word meanings. (Shades of meaning or connotation)  In addition, language and the ability to read and comprehend text affect all facets of education and life.


How do we help our students gain the abilities to interpret language?  We need to strive for bilateral hemisphere activation.  This is when both sides of the brain are engaged and working together. A simple definition of this process was stated in my January post entitled, “Connecting Two Hemispheres = Quality Teaching.   I stated, “As teachers, the more we have students use BOTH hemispheres of the brain–the more engaged and learning is taking place…when students engage in learning, they must use many areas of the brain to do different tasks that we give them. Processing, problem solving, recalling and evaluating require both sides of the brain connecting together to get the job done well.”  To have learning take place, our students must use both hemispheres of the brain and using text that is rich in figurative language, unknown vocabulary and words with different connotations is a vehicle to accomplish the task.


Kenneth Krous in an article entitled, “Mapping Metaphor: This is your brain on Figurative Language,” scientists studied the activation of the brain when exposed to figurative and literal statements.  The majority of language is processed in the parietal lobe. However, participants in this study showed more activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus (a ridge or wrinkle on the frontal lobe) stronger for metaphors than literal language. The findings were that the brain went through a “sequential” process to determine the metaphor or figurative language. The brain had to make sense of the text literally (decode and read) and then if it did not make sense the brain would reinterpret the information in another part of the brain to access a figurative meaning.


How can we utilize this information and help our students?

We must recognize that text continues to become more complex with each grade level. Once students have become fluent readers, the text must continue to increase in complexity and figurative language to gauge whether the student is “reading words” or “understanding the words.”  By challenging students with small chunks of complex text, they are able to have a “break down in meaning” and then learn how to use strategies to figure it out.  By using small chunks of text we can gauge the comprehension of our readers and model thinking for our students.


In the article Krous shares; the study showed the brain activation is stronger for figurative language.  The student has to reread or reprocess the information because it does not make sense to the brain when it is read. Earlier this year, many of you used the Reading Comprehension Tool Kits which were designed to help students think about their inner voice and to notice what they are thinking as they read. TREASURE is a strategy designed to help students think about text as they read and immediately decide if they should reread or continue.  Both of these are strategies to help students ensure that they are making sense of text and to know when something seems “not right.”  (I always tell students—if it does not seem right—it is probably figurative language—reread it!)


We must choose text that is complex but control the amount we give students so that they can fully process the information and skills we are asking them to tackle. One way to do this is POETRY.  Using poems to introduce language concepts is a natural way to expose students to our language standards and scaffold learning in chunks.  Providing figurative language into text is an easy way to see if students truly understand what they read.  When a second grader reads Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish, you can tell if they are making sense of text and reading on a literal level or reprocessing the text to a deeper figurative meaning by hearing the child laugh.  Children who read the words and do not understand may have comprehension of the actual text but not the hidden meanings. This must be modeled for our students who lack background and vocabulary such as our ELL and low socio-economic children.


Most of all we must continually expose our students to figurative language. Metaphors, similes, personification, etc. all require students to think beyond the words on the page to a deeper level.  Figurative language can evoke images; senses and emotion which helps students retain information IF they “see it.”


Helping students comprehend text requires both literal and figurative understanding of the text and language. Students learning to annotate, using their inner conversation and beginning to see when the text is unclear helps our students create deep meaning. Language is an important element in making sense of reading. Using figurative language helps our students build this skill and increase their ability to think beyond literal words on the page.


Resources used for this Blog:


Kenneth Krouse’s article entitled:  Mapping Metaphor: This is your brain on Figurative Language:

NCDP Test Specifications for the EOG grades 3-8:






Picture = 10,000 Words

One picture is worth ten thousand words.

-Chinese Proverb


As educators in the technology age, we cannot forget the importance of visuals.  A photograph can elicit engagement and help to build background assisting students to make connections immediately.  Visuals are SO powerful that you can even trick the brain into making unusual or incorrect connections by inserting a photograph into learning. For example, when I taught Academically Gifted, I would often present a riddle at the beginning of class to begin critical thinking.  By adding a visual to the riddle, all students had a place to begin thinking.  By adding an incorrect visual it began students thinking in a different direction.


This is an example of a third grade riddle.


How does the visual affect your thinking?

What happens when you see the same riddle presented with a different visual?


Can you see the power of a simple photograph?  Neither graphic is the correct answer. Each elicits different thoughts and connections for the student.

A visual can be processed by the brain in ¼ of a second and helps your brain immediately begin to make connections to the text.  By applying visuals or video clips into your lessons you are helping students make sense out of the academic content while increasing their attention and ability to remember the information. Karla Guiterrez shares Dr. Lynell Burmark’s (educational consultant) statement, “…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information (plus or minus 2) […]. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”  The graphics can increase retention of information forty two percent which is especially powerful for our English Language Learners and low socioeconomic students who lack background and vocabulary.  Using video and visuals can help to make concepts concrete for learners.

Here are 3 strategies for using visuals and making learning active.

  1. Begin lessons with a graphic (video, photograph, painting, video clip, etc) that will encapsulate the lesson; which creates a hook for the learner. The visuals help evoke emotion and make learning more concrete which will assist students in remembering and accessing the information.
  2. Use visuals (photographs, primary documents, paintings, video clips, etc.) and scaffolding questions to help students build background and vocabulary for a lesson.

Example:  Use photos from which depict weather scenes such as this one.


Start with questions:

What do you see?

How are the clouds similar?  How do they seem different?  How are clouds created?

With simple questions you can help students see that we have an atmosphere that is layered; clouds are not all similar and are separate entities.  You have the ability to begin building vocabulary in just a few minutes.  Introducing concepts such as evaporation, condensation, water cycle, precipitation and the kinds of precipitation helps students begin to make connections between words they have heard or will hear throughout the lesson.

  1. Video clips can be utilized with students in pairs. One student will face the visual and one facing away. Show the video or clip and one student will narrate or describe what they see to the other student and then switch places. (To keep students from being exposed to the negative ads of Youtube–you can use a tool called ViewPure which will filter out the inappropriate ads for student viewing)  This allows students to verbalize what they see by using the vocabulary they have learned.  You would have students face one another and then let them discuss together what they see.  After the direct teaching lesson, show the visual or clip again and repeat the lesson while encouraging students to use new vocabulary.  By allowing students to share information, they are beginning to use the vocabulary and “conceptualize.” Speaking and listening allow the students to access the knowledge and make sense of it before they are asked to read or write.  

Utilizing a webtool called Edpuzzle  you can add questions to a video at designated stopping points and deepen learning with thought provoking questions. (See Jennifer M. or Kelly if you want to know more on how to use this tool)

75% of our learning is through the eyes.  Visuals help us make “sense” out of ideas and evoke an emotion which aids remembering the information.   We can process a visual faster than text and retain that information longer. Knowing this information, our need to incorporate more graphics, video clips, drawing and art to ensure our students are making connections to material and deepening their learning is clear.


Resources Accessed for this Article:

Blog  by Karla Guiterrez accessed on March 18, 2016:

Infographic accessed on March 19, 2016:

Infographic accessed on March 16, 2016:



History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

—-Maya Angelou


In our world of technological advances our abilities to communicate and relate are suffering. With the election season in full swing, the intolerance of others’ ideas is filling the air. Learning to see all sides of an issue and knowing you can agree to disagree respectfully is crucial for peaceful understanding.


The human brain is a complex organ thriving on stimulation through creativity and emotion.  These two factors are crucial for processing and patterning memory. When emotion is evoked the brain is able to create connections and deep meaning is fostered. Creative thinking and emotion are the two elements that will help foster understanding of events from multiple perspectives.


Memorizing and rote learning is part of the educational process with tasks such as spelling words and multiplication tables but when delving into topics that help to mold and change a person’s perspective or value system creating connections is crucial. History is the subject which helps students experience events sparked by greatness as well as mistakes. The study of history allows students to experience various perspectives, opinions and ideas which help students see through eyes of another person and allow true understanding. In a world of technology and very little interaction, this personal connection is an important piece of learning.  Professor and education theorist E.D. Hirsch, Jr. states, “There is a great deal of evidence, indeed a consensus in cognitive psychology, that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar problems and who are broad-gauged problem solvers, critical thinkers and life long learners are without exception, well informed people.”  These types of learners are the ones we want to foster to help ensure a better future for our country and world.


When we move forward in life, looking back on lessons we have learned helps us decide which road to take in different situations. Learning about history and multiple perspectives allows students to see where we have come as a country, mistakes that have been made and provide insight into why things are the way they are.  Without looking at mistakes or other perspectives we stay rooted in one way thinking that allows a person to see only black and white and continue “one way thinking.”


Reading facts about a topic is only a small fraction of what is needed to gain understanding of some complex topics.  Pairing literature with primary documents and poetry helps us to look at multiple opinions and ideas. Think of the issue of slavery as an example. How could a person understand what the time period was like by simply reading text and answering questions?  However, browsing primary documents, photographs, advertisements depicting the selling of slaves, wanted posters for runaway slaves; narratives from slaves, ship captains, slave owners, etc. help students unravel the threads of the story.  Listening to interviews and testimonials from slaves and their ancestors regarding treatment, daily life and conditions helps our students to wrap ideas and concepts together to make connections from one person to another.


A new tool that can help students gain insight into multiple perspectives is an APP called Perspecs News App.  This App allows you to search for a news article and it will be given to you in three articles. One article provides background on the topic and is presented in a neutral tone.  The other two articles are the pro and con perspectives of the topic.  You must be careful when choosing the topics because some topics are inappropriate for our elementary students but this is a powerful tool to show more than one side to a story.


Poetry is another powerful tool to help students see more than one side to an issue and be affected by the emotion of the issue.  Having two short poems on a topic can help students learn information and see how a person felt during the time.


When looking up the word open minded, words such as comprehensive, divergent thinker, critical thinking, flexible, and perspicacious filled the pages.  Perspicacious means being insightful and having a clear understanding of things. Isn’t this a characteristic we want developed in our students and fellow citizens?

Stop Finding Reasons to Fail

At a recent technology conference, surrounded with swirling lights, flashing sounds and gadgets, virtual experiences, and robots, my brain began bursting with possibilities. My thoughts changed quickly to my desk tumbling with a mound of papers awaiting my return. The tabs open on my computer that held tasks awaiting completion.  Most of all my daily frustration of not feeling effective or “enough” for my school created a panic. Anxiety swelled up and I wondered, “Why am I failing?”  Once I was fearless and jumped to conquer any task that was set before me. Suddenly, the following words from the speaker sliced through all my thoughts like a flash; “Stop finding reasons to fail.”


What has changed?

Am I finding reasons to fail?

Have I developed poor self esteem?

Then it hit me, I have heard repeatedly the idea of self efficacy and the need to develop this in our students and teachers–I AM MISSING IT!


Self efficacy is different from self esteem. Self esteem is simply feeling good about yourself and how you perform.  Self efficacy is when you believe you have the necessary skills to reach a goal or complete a task and feel capable of success.  Thinking again of the words, “Stop finding reasons to fail,” it occurred to me that I have become so anxious in my own abilities that I stopped striving to conquer things I once would have.


Every word spoken during that particular technology session, after the quote above, was completely lost while I juggled a hundred thoughts and dozens of emotions.   What has happened to my self efficacy and how do I restore it?  As educators, we are working in a time of both change and road blocks.  Change can bring frustration but, also, great possibilities.  Road blocks are opportunities waiting for our creativity.  Somewhere I have lost sight of my abilities to conquer the difficult tasks that once inspired me to take action.


I read several articles about self efficacy to see how I could restore my own and wanted to share my findings in case there are others who are feeling the same way.  Sarah Silverman (2009) shared, “Thomas Guskey (1950–) characterizes teachers’ perceptions of control as based primarily in the teacher (internal) or other factors (external) and variable across situations. If control over an outcome is attributed internally, individuals are more likely to engage in a behavior.”  This statement reminded me that I cannot let a turbulent time in education make me believe that I have no control over the situations in our schools. I have become so overwhelmed, I have started to sit back and believe that only others can make change.  This is simply not true.


Silverman wrote, “Teachers with higher levels of efficacy are more likely to learn and use innovative strategies for teaching, implement management techniques that provide for student autonomy, set attainable goals, persist in the face of student failure, willingly offer special assistance to low achieving students, and design instruction that develops students’ self-perceptions of their academic skills.”  After reading this statement, I realized I do have control and have the ability to reach students and teachers with quality strategies and teaching practices. I have the ability to share data that may have camouflaged a problem or uncover a learning need that was once undiscovered. I have knowledge to share and skills to combat many problems that our students and teachers face.


Can I do this alone?  No!  Surrounded by my colleagues, each with unique and special gifts, we can make change and face obstacles before us each day.  In fact, we can create collective efficacy, “Goddard, Hoy and Hoy (2000) define this as the “perceptions of teachers in a school that the efforts of the faculty as a whole will have a positive effects on students with the faculty in general agreeing that teachers in this school can get through to the most difficult students,” at a difficult time. We, as a school, can make positive change if we believe we have that ability.  Together, lifting each other’s gifts and abilities, we can meet any challenge before us and help our students’ succeed.


I, for one, will rebuild my self efficacy by changing my small space in the world and helping to make those around me stronger and better.  I will no longer “find excuses to fail” but will seek opportunities to attain and succeed.



This video was an inspiration. I am sure you have seen it before but what a great reminder that we can make a difference by making change as an individual and that it does matter.



Resources accessed for this blog article:

Article accessed on March 5, 2016:

Article accessed on March 4, 2016:

Article accessed on March 3, 2016:





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