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:






Poetry- Reasons to Embrace it!

It is NO secret that I love poetry.  As an educator, you should too!  Poetry is a powerful vehicle of language.  Poems contain figurative language, grammar opportunities, and lessons on perspective and point of view in short manageable packages.   Rhyming poems offer an added benefit for younger readers because the rhyming helps them become better decoders. Rhyming improves phonemic awareness and learning of word families such as pill, will, chill, etc.

Poems are short but complex and offer a manageable way to expose students to rigorous text without overwhelming them.  They offer a way to build fluency for our readers. They help students build word recognition and automaticity with repeated readings and sometimes predictable rhyme patterns.

A missing element in our instruction is often GRAMMAR.  Poems offer educators text to examine punctuation and grammar “Do’s and Don’ts.”  Anyone who has looked at an e. e. cummings poem has been exposed to a new world of looking at words and punctuation. Students are able to look at the use of parts of speech in context in small phrases which makes it easier to study the purpose and impact.

Look at the following excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem Summer Shower

 A drop fell on the apple tree,

Another on the roof;

A half a dozen kissed the eaves,

And made the gables laugh.


A few went out to help the brook,

That went to help the sea.

Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,

What necklaces could be!


The dust replaced in hoisted roads,

The birds jocoser sung;

The sunshine threw his hat away,

The orchards spangles hung.

This excerpt was accessed from the following website on 2/12/2016:

Within these three stanzas are opportunities to discuss verbs used in unusual ways.  The author creates images with nouns that are unconventional implying that the sunshine has a hat.   Diamante poems are an easy way for teachers to use poetry to focus on the power of grammar use in writing.  Helping children see why particular punctuation is being used such as the semicolon or comma, helps them understand their purpose within text.  Poetry offers these examples and allows the educator to teach skills at a sentence or phrase level rather than an entire paragraph or selection. When you are teaching skills remember that you teach first on a word or sentence level to paragraph to selection to multiple selections.  You do not begin teaching the skill of context clues within an entire selection because it is too much.  You must isolate the skill to one sentence until they understand and make the level more difficult and add more text. By moving through this progression level when you teach your skills, it allows students to grasp the concept on a concrete level before moving to a more complex abstract level.

Poems offer a way for students to apply their reading strategy and make true sense of text. When you read a free verse poem, the first response is normally—what? This response is that you did not comprehend the text and what you do next proves if you are a good reader. If you stop and say you hate poetry—you have just proved yourself not to be a strategic reader. If you apply reading strategies such as rereading, chunking the text, or applying context clues, etc. than you have proven you know how to apply the needed skills to make meaning of text. Poetry provides TONS of opportunity to TRULY engage students into using and applying skills and strategies as they read.  Some of our students do not even know they do not understand while others see that there is a break down in comprehension quickly.  It is this understanding that separates struggling readers from our strongest.  Strong readers make mistakes but they have “read attack” skills and apply them automatically. For the rest of our students, we must teach this skill.   It is rare for our higher students to truly grapple with text. Poetry is embedded with vocabulary and figurative language that even our strongest readers are not proficient. This ensures that ALL of our students are challenged with rigor and learn to see what it feels like when understanding is breaking down and how to apply reading comprehension strategies to fix it. For example, look at the excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem, I like to see it lap the Miles:

I like to see it lap the Miles –

And lick the Valleys up –

And stop to feed itself at Tanks –

And then – prodigious step


Around a Pile of Mountains –

And supercilious peer

In Shanties – by the sides of Roads –

And then a Quarry pare

This excerpt was accessed from the following website on 2/12/2016:

Immediately when students read the first stanza they think that the poet is describing an animal because of words such as lick, feed and lap.  The words tank and prodigious normally are skipped because they do not make sense for the reader at first.  The second stanza is usually where students stop and say, “I don’t get it.”  This should make you happy because they are realizing that they are decoding the words but not making  meaning of the text. Having students return to the beginning and begin to question the text and chunk the lines into phrases to really think about the meaning and hidden figurative language embedded in the words helps them think deeper.  The key word is “tanks” because this just does not make sense for an animal.  At this point, strong readers will realize that they must think figuratively.  Think of the opportunity here to model for students how to “fix their break down in comprehension” with modeling, guided questions and student discussion.

Finally, poetry provides creativity and the opportunities to see and think from other perspectives. Poetry is a world where any object or setting can take on a new persona.  Poetry is a world where “things are NUTS” and sometimes do not make sense but open to possibilities. Poetry provides a world of imagination and a place that educators should WANT to run towards.


Resources for you:

K-1 Exemplars 2-3 Exemplars 4-5 Exemplars

For TES specifically–

This Poem Is NUTS- strategy for testing– see Kelly or a 3-5 teacher if you want to learn more


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