Teaching Metaphors and Similes: Make a Game of It

14 Dec

For students, learning about metaphors and similes can sometimes feel like doing taxes on April 14. Or taking your daily dose of cod liver oil poured over bran flakes. Or picking blueberries under a sweltering summer sun while wearing a corduroy three piece suit. Admit it. We English teachers can sometimes beat the joy right out of the most wonderful, playful topics.

I am 99.9% certain that at some point, in every English classroom around the globe, the definitions of metaphors and similes get taught in some fashion. Certainly, no reader can effectively glean understanding from texts without having at least an intuitive sense for the different functions of literal and figurative language. Learning to appreciate and evaluate language of comparison is a key part of any reader’s journey. Why, then, do so many students struggle to move beyond the most cursory understanding of these particular aspects of language? I think we must shoulder a hefty load of culpability here. Too often we teach these concepts in a basic manner, only assessing students’ ability to define and identify figurative devices.

One way I move beyond simple definitions of these terms is by playing a game that helps students understand the power of comparison and why using it well adds such style, life, and efficiency to our writing.

The game is a simple one. Pair students and give them two random nouns to compare. They have five minutes to list as many similarities as they can. After the five minutes, we share the results, and I award prizes for clever or copious responses.

How I set up the Metaphor Game:

  • Give students 3 slips of paper.

  • Review what a NOUN is. (Yes, many in the room need you to review this.)

  • Ask students to write down three random nouns, one per slip of paper.

  • Collect their slips in a bowl, bag, jack-o-lantern, broken globe, or any other vessel-like contraption you have on hand. (Don’t pull out your shirt and collect them like a bushel of apples. You, like me, could stand to lay off the carbs and do a few more crunches.)

  • CHEAT: I always add my own nouns beforehand, just to ensure there are enough weird ones.

  • Next, pull out two random slips and lead the class through a sample round of associations. Look for all the ways that these two nouns are similar. ( I don’t cheat with this step. I pull out new words every time; it keeps things fresh.)

    • Example: CAT & COMPUTER

      • both start with the letter C

      • both have a T in them

      • both need electricity to operate

      • people purchase both

      • both can be broken

      • both can give the owner pleasure

      • both can die

      • both hate water

      • you can donate both to charity

      • both can be purchased at a store

      • you could kick both of them (but you should NOT)

      • etc.

  • Pair off the students and have each student pull one slip of paper. BUT, THEY SHOULD NOT LOOK YET.

  • At your signal, have them look at the slip of paper and give each team five minutes to create a list of all the ways the two nouns are similar.

  • HINT: I usually do NOT allow them to switch the nouns. Instead, I help them get started with similarities I can see. Yet, the game is more difficult if the two items are related, though (e.g. a “boat” and “oar”). In such cases, I pull another slip and replace one of the nouns.

  • After the five minutes are up, I ask the students to share their nouns and their lists. I award prizes for the team that produces the MOST similarities and the MOST CREATIVE (as judged by me).

  • KEY: Ask the students to reflect on WHY we completed this activity. (I usually have them write this reflection).

  • This worksheet should help you.

How I use the Metaphor Game:

  • Every time, teams come up with comparisons that make us cringe, laugh, groan, guffaw, or stroke our chins in a manner that shows how impressed we are with the fellow geniuses in the room. I always try to get the students to understand it is this gut reaction–this spark of interaction between writer and audience–that is at the heart of figurative language. If we are artists and do our jobs well, we find a comparison that is fresh, alive, and memorable in some way. Our goal as writers should be to avoid the predictable and ordinary, pushing ourselves to write something new that gets a response from our readers.

  • I often ask students to use one of the comparisons made in the exercise to start a poem.

  • I sometimes use this game as my opening day activity for the school year. My very first principal had a mantra of “Day one, lesson one,” and I have always found it more useful to begin my English classes with the students doing something. I then return to the game later in the year when we are studying figurative language in some manner. The game can be played multiple times with the same group of students, if it is spaced out.

  • I reference the game when we analyze a piece of writing. I’ll call the students’ attention back to the inventive comparisons they found in random objects and then ask them to find the most lively, interesting comparisons in the text, judging the “freshness” and effect of the writer’s language.

No matter the age, our students don’t need us to define similes or metaphors (or even synecdoche or metonymy). Instead, we need to find exciting, authentic ways to have students work toward an understanding of why writers so often resort to comparison to express themselves.

This activity is just one suggestion. Here are a few more resources I like:

“Similes and Metaphors” by The Bazillions

Listen to “Similes and Metaphors” by The Bazillions and have students write their own figurative language songs.

Metaphors for Teaching

I just enjoyed this SlideShare on metaphors for teaching. I thought you might like it, too.

Simile and Metaphor Lessons at WebEnglishTeacher.com

WebEnglishTeacher.com is one of my go-to sources for thoughtful lessons that go beyond the obvious.

Flip the TED.ed video “The Art of the Metaphor” by Jane Hirshfeld:

Everything in this post is free, but if you find it helpful a follow or rating at TpT would be a great thank you. You might also be interested in the following no-prep resources:

Poetry Reading: Literal, Sensory, and Figurative Language

The Neals TpT English Products

8 Responses to “Teaching Metaphors and Similes: Make a Game of It”

  1. Laraine May 14, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    These suggestions are wonderful. They also encourage students to engage in prolonged analysis in order to discover similarities. So sorry about your YouTube experience. I feel your pain.

  2. Nirvana Watkins (@nrwatkins) June 30, 2016 at 12:33 am #

    Hi Robin, these suggestions are great. I would like to link to your game as part of a unit I am writing for the Reading Australia project about Libby Gleeson’s “Mahtab’s Story”. I can either quote your post or link back to your resources. I would be most appreciative of the opportunity to adapt this for my unit.

    • rbneal July 5, 2016 at 8:36 am #

      Thank you, Nirvana. A link back would be lovely.

  3. Attia July 21, 2016 at 9:37 am #

    Hi Robin. The metaphor game seem quite interesting and doable. I am going to use it as part of a model lesson for the teachers. However, I don’t really know the answers to the 3 questions at the end. How are sister and dog related? Where will this lead to? How do I relate it to metaphor? Any help would be much appreciated.

  4. jamiel July 26, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

    is there an actual game?

  5. onafoolsjourney@yahoo.com October 19, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    This lesson saved my day!! Thank you.


  1. No Dead Fish: Teaching Students to Write Effective Introductions | Robin Neal - January 12, 2014

    […] I fill one bowl with slips of paper that have random NOUNS on them. (I actually add to the same bowl I use earlier in the year during The Metaphor Game.) […]

  2. LitLinks: Exploring metaphors with black holes - Patricia Newman - September 25, 2019

    […] Robin Neal’s Metaphor Game includes a simple, engaging approach to teaching metaphor, as well as thoughtful commentary. […]

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