Figurative vs. Literal Language

Reading assignment
FatCamera/Getty Images

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 tonne, they might just think that it does and come away with a belief that a tonne is something close to the weight of a suitcase.

Figurative Speech/Language 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 (Exagerating 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.