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  • Writer's pictureMr D

Stop Screaming at Similes (like a Banshee)

Updated: Nov 25, 2022

Teaching similes shouldn't annoy me, but it does. I recently spent hours planning a lesson with visuals, videos and carefully constructed examples of similes to see half the class still producing either clichés (as fast as a cheetah) or unimaginative comparisons linked to what they could literally see in front of them (the moon was as white as a sheet of paper). It was enough to make me scream like a banshee!

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love figurative language. So much so, I made over 200 Idiom of the Day posters and a calendar linked to idioms through history, from Ancient Greece, to the Romans, to WWII. Who knew that 'close but no cigar' came from Victorian fairgrounds where the prize was usually a cigar? Who knew that 'having a chat' stems from Old English 'chateren' and that soldiers during the Napoleonic wars referred to lice as chats? Who knew that was why soldiers in WWI, when soldiers huddled in groups to kill off lice, were therefore 'chattering'? It's fascinating stuff!

Personification, metaphor, idioms and hyperbole help to explain complex ideas, enhance visualisation for the reader, describe something, add humour or emphasise particular points. Ultimately, figurative language makes our language a richer experience.

Many experts also consider alliteration an example of figurative language, even though it does not involve figures of speech. Rather, alliteration is a sound device that layers some additional meaning on top of the literal language of the text. (Writing 101: What is Figurative Language)

So, where do we stand with similes in the curriculum? Well, the Key Stage 2 English curriculum states the following:

Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation:

Opportunities for teachers to enhance pupils’ vocabulary arise naturally from their reading and writing. As vocabulary increases, teachers should show pupils how to understand the relationships between words, how to understand nuances in meaning, and how to develop their understanding of, and ability to use, figurative language.

In Lower Key Stage 2:

Most pupils will not need further direct teaching of word reading skills: they are able to decode unfamiliar words accurately, and need very few repeated experiences of this before the word is stored in such a way that they can read it without overt sound-blending. They should demonstrate understanding of figurative language, distinguish shades of meaning among related words and use age-appropriate, academic vocabulary.

In Reading Comprehension

En6/2.2c discuss and evaluate how authors use language, including figurative language, considering the impact on the reader

The non-statutory guidance states:

Pupils should be taught the technical and other terms needed for discussing what they hear and read, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, imagery, style and effect.

Having searched through lots of books recently (The Explorer by Katherine Rundell being the latest), similes are alive and well in children's literature. In fact, after hunting out as many as I could, I soon realised how frequently used they are and, albeit begrudgingly, how wonderfully effective they could be.

"There was something slightly vague about his face—like bread dough that had begun to rise, smoothing out the bumps and cracks and depressions." (Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

"Two glowing dots appeared on the figure’s face, burning orange like cigarette ends. They were eyes." (The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie)

"The beetle swooped over the cowering boys’ heads like a miniature fighter plane, hissing in their ears before circling back to Darkus." (Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard)

Perhaps it is those elusive 'greater depth' writers who are able to use figurative language with aplomb? Surely the hallmark of a great writer is one who can help the reader visualise or compare things to emphasise a point? Because of this, it is well-worth children exploring similes in greater detail and more often, to both use them effectively and comprehend them, just like when they come up against an unusual idiom or some left-field metaphor. Why then do I feel like I have some kind of simile phobia? Is that a simile? Ugh!

In 173 A.D., Aristotle discussed the uses of metaphor in writing and how the simile was merely an inferior type of metaphor. Other thinkers believed they were both closely related but that a simile offered more as it represented a sense of degree. (Aristotle's Analogical Metaphor by Steve Nimis, 1988) Either way, I think the Aristotle's view of similes may have been something I subconsciously felt too. Whilst metaphors imply 'the same', a simile tends to show similarity or dissimilarity - apparently within infinitely subtle ways. Some may present extreme likeness such as Byron's comment about a gondola, "Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe" (Beppo 19.7), or even an extreme unlikeness, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" (Shakespeare, Sonnet 130). Lying between sameness and its opposite are therefore an infinite possibility of degrees. Perhaps it is this that makes the simile more subjective and open to interpretation. How about we use that to our advantage in the classroom by offering children to opportunity to explore it this way?

It was just like....

It was a little like...

It was nothing like...

Because of this infinite spectrum between literal and figurative, children invariably start to mishandle its use. For example, saying 'blackberries are like raspberries', becomes boring because it is too close to this line, though it is not incorrect. Similes exist on a continuum between literal and figurative whilst metaphors only work when further along towards the figurative continuum. It's been therefore proposed by some that similes are easier to understand, and of course why Aristotle was no fan!

So where does this all leave me when trying to teach similes to class? Downloading examples from various resource websites gave me clichés. As discussed earlier, similes are being used feverishly in some of today's best new young adult and middle grade books so instead, I headed there, hunting for similes from a variety of new books. Here's one from The Explorer by Katherine Rundell:

"The ants swarmed on to his fingers and knuckles and wrists; it was like wearing a pair of black gloves."

I then considered how much this needed breaking down into it's components, as well as identifying the purpose of it. The purpose was to instill a picture in the reader's mind, along with a feeling, by using a degree of effect that it was like (but therefore not entirely) wearing some black gloves. The point here was to emphasise just how many ants there were. Here was the plan to help children break it down:

The Simile Studio

1.) Underline the two things being compared.

Children copy it out and underline to show that children understand the basic comparison.

2.) Draw the two things being compared to help visualise them better.

This allows the child to visualise the basic comparison.

3.) Explain what the simile is trying to emphasise or what it means.

This allows the child to think about the purpose of the simile and what point it is trying to make.

4.) Swap one of the comparisons to make it your own.

This fourth step begins the transition to independence by changing one aspect of the simile, but may need support from the teacher and a context (class book, topic, local event).

5.) Write your own simile using previous learning or a picture stimulus to help.

By using a picture stimulus linked to previous learning, children should be able to create their own simile with possible links to changing degrees (e.g. seemed like, was like, was unlike, was a little like etc).

Taking similes from the actual class book I was reading in class, coupled with links to the geography/history topic we were studying, gave children a head start in terms of background knowledge, context, understanding characters and reasons for an authors choice of vocabulary. You can now download The Simile Studio TOTALLY FREE and see if it helps the children in your class!

  • For subscribers of our site, we have an exciting 'A Simile a Day' calendar (much like our 'An Idiom a Day' resource) which you can share more regularly with children in class. September is complete and we will be producing one for every day of the year! These have a few questions to get children thinking, but you could also use the Simile Studio alongside them.

  • You can also have a blast with our rock song 'Similes' in our Literacy Jukebox, which has downloadable lyrics and a karaoke version to get the class joining in too!

We hope this has been useful to start thinking about the ways you teach figurative language. Let us know if you have some great ways to support children with this tricky area of the curriculum. Download The Simile Studio, try it out and let us know how it goes over on Twitter @ManicStTeachers.


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