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:






2 Thoughts.

  1. What do you do when students do not get figurative language at all? They cannot judge when something does not make sense.

  2. I would teach students visualization techniques and have the read a section and draw it– by drawing you can see what the are getting out of it and can go in and have the student reread chunks– teaching inner voice and chunking text is crucial for comprehension– drawing helps students “see” when something is unusual.

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