Grasp the nettle

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Andrew Hammond suggests some activities to whet children's appetites for understanding metaphor and using language creatively

According to Aristotle, ordinary words convey what we know already; it is through metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh and exciting.

Try telling that to my Year 7 students, as they navigate their way through the figurative fog of poetic metaphor. "It's all so random," they cry.

As English teachers, one of the most interesting challenges we face is encouraging learners to think - and write - more figuratively. After all, the world of syntax and semantics is confusing enough. When, having grasped the process of literal meaning-making, children realise there is an entirely new layer of allegory and symbolism waiting to be explored, they may not always share Aristotle's sense of adventure.

Yet, as my own children demonstrate, in the early years of childhood the world is very much a matter of metaphor. Imaginative play - improvising with props and acting out fictional roles - is all about applying meanings and characteristics to things to which they are not literally applicable.

So why do so many older children seem unable - or unwilling - to use the same skills when reading and writing metaphors?

Perhaps in the middle years of primary a preoccupation with the mechanics of language-learning prevents a more playful, experimental approach to communicating - and thinking. Semantics is taught alongside phonics; there is little time to debate the potentiality of words. So when, in later years, pupils are asked to infer meaning from an author's use of irony or metaphor, the task can often seem baffling.

So here are new activities designed to keep children's metaphoric competence alive and kicking and promote some creative thinking: Using props

Form a circle around a collection of everyday objects (football, can of food, tie, pencil). Invite volunteers to choose an object and pick it up, then close their eyes and feel the shape of it, reciting aloud: "In my mind's eye I can see, the object in my hand could be a ...". Considering the characteristics (or "pencilness") of a pencil, for example, without actually seeing it, unlocks its "potentiality". Using their imagination, the children may believe they are holding a giant's toothpick, a miniature telegraph pole, or a piece of driftwood.


Creating fictional contexts forces children to "wonder", as they move from literal to fantasy. Any form of role-play, improvised or scripted, helps to keep children's imagination and metaphoric competence alive. To focus on metaphors specifically, distribute slips of paper with different metaphorical statements written on them. In groups, the children enact two sketches: one based on a figurative interpretation of the statement, the other to show a literal one, for example: "The teacher was a raging bull"; "Michael was a mouse in class"; "The exam was a nightmare".


Enigmatic verses are an excellent way of prompting lateral thought and linguistic exploration. Using cryptic riddles can encourage children to make connections, identify shared attributes and actively seek out the literal solution that is enveloped in metaphorical referents. For example: Little Nancy Etticote

with a white petticoat

and a yellow nose.

The longer she stands,

the shorter she grows.

(Answer: candle)

Old Mother Twitchett had but one eye

And a long tail which she let fly;

And every time she went over a gap

She left a bit of her tail in a trap.

(Answer: needle and thread)


Polysemic metaphors show us the different uses for a single word. "Stick"

for example can be used in several ways ("stick to the point", "give it some stick", "I couldn't stick it", etc). Invite the children to construct mind-maps with the key word at the centre and its different meanings exemplified in short statements written around the word. Other polysemic words include: point, see, stand, and various parts of the body (head, hand, back).

News reports

Metonymic metaphors like "The White House denies the allegation", or "Downing Street gave no comment", have become part of our vernacular, and pupils will know instinctively what they mean. Think of several examples and hand each one to a pair or group of children to use in a fictional news report. (Examples include: Buckingham Palace, The Pentagon, Nasa, Greenpeace and Brussels.) Each time a report is given, ask the audience to identify the metaphor contained within it.


Orientational metaphors allow us to conceptualise feelings and qualities in a physical dimension, for instance, "happy" is up and "sad" is down.

Encourage the children to draw a vertical line onto which they write all the metaphors they can think of, based on this example (a sinking feeling, down in the dumps, flying high, in buoyant mood). Then move on to considering other bipolar concepts or qualities (goodbad, confidentnervous, pastfuture) and see if they can think of similar metaphors. They may even be able to consider new ways of conceptualising these, (rather than updown, try: hereover there; outsideinside; in frontbehind).


Ontological metaphors transfer the attributes of abstract ideas onto physical things in order for us to understand them better. If we think of confusion as a ball of string, we can appreciate the significance of phrases like: "feeling tangled up", "unpick this mess", and "I've lost the thread". Discuss the following concepts and then see if the children can brainstorm the related metaphors for themselves:

1 anger is a boiling liquid ("at boiling point", "bubbling inside", "need to cool down", "simmer"); 2 progress is a journey ("come a long way", "made some ground", "two steps back"); 3 love is fire ("burning with desire", "heart on fire", "cold-hearted"); 4 challenges are mountains ("uphill struggle", "a hard climb", "downhill all the way").

These workshops challenge the way pupils think about metaphor, turning abstract ideas into more physical forms they can grapple with. Such activities may also provide important opportunities for children to continually exercise their imagination, reaching beyond ordinary words and meanings to find new connections and, ultimately, new ways of thinking.

Andrew Hammond is literacy co-ordinator at St Andrew's School, Woking, Surrey

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