Figurative vs. Literal Language

Teacher helping young student reading a book
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Learning to make meaning when figurative language is used can be a difficult concept for learning disabled students. Students with disabilities, especially those with language delays, become easily confused when figurative language is used. Figurative language or figures of speech is very abstract for children.

Put simply to a child: figurative language doesn't mean exactly what it says. Unfortunately, many students take figurative language literally. The next time you say—this briefcase weighs a ton, they might just think that it does and come away with a belief that a ton is something close to the weight of a suitcase.

Figurative Speech Comes in Many Forms

  • Simile (comparisons often with as or like): as smooth as silk, as fast as the wind, quick like a lightning bolt.
  • Metaphor (implicit comparison without like or as): You're such an airhead. It's bursting with flavor.
  • Hyperbole (exaggerating statement): In order to get my assignment done, I'll have to burn the midnight oil.
  • Personification (giving something a human quality): The sun smiled down on me. The leaves danced in the wind.

As a teacher, take time to teach the meanings of figurative language. Let the students brainstorm possible sayings for figurative language. Take a look at the list below and have students brainstorm a context for which the phrases could be used. For instance: when I want to use 'Bells and whistles' I could be rererring to the new computer I just bought which has, lots of memory, a dvd burner, an amazing video card, a wireless keyboard and a mouse. Therefore I could say 'My new computer has all the bells and whistles'.

Use the list below, or let students brainstorm a list of figures of speech. Let them identify what the possible meanings of the phrases could be.

Figures of Speech Phrases

At the drop of a hat
Axe to grind
Back to square one
Bells and whistles
Bed of roses
Burn the midnight oil
Clean sweep
Chew the fat
Cold feet
Coast is clear
Down in the dumps
Ears are burning
Forty winks
Full of beans

Give me a break
Give my right arm
In a nutshell/pickle
In the bag
It's greek to me
Final straw
Let the cat out of the bag
Long shot
Mum's the word
On the ball
Out on a limb
Pass the buck
Pay through the nose
Read between the lines
Saved by the bell
Spill the beans
Take a rain check
Through the grapevine
True colors
Under the weather
Up my sleeve
Upset the apple cart
Walking on eggshells