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Figurative Language: A Guide For KS3 and KS4 Students

Updated: Jun 13


Wooden thinking man, figurative language techniques and a question mark on a yellow background

What is Figurative Language?


Commonly found in poetry, literature, songs and everyday speech, figurative language is a powerful tool that goes beyond the literal meaning of words.


Techniques such as metaphors, similes, hyperbole, personification and onomatopoeia can add richness and depth to written and spoken language by helping to create vivid imagery, evoke emotions and make our language more engaging.



Why is Figurative Language Important?


Understanding and using figurative language techniques can greatly enhance your reading and writing skills and, in your GCSE English exams, you will need to identify and analyse these devices in a variety of texts as well as use them in your own creative writing.


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The word Alliteration written repeatedly on a white background

Alliteration


Often associated with children's literature and tongue twisters, alliteration is a stylistic device that uses the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of neighbouring words. For example, "She sells seashells by the seashore" or "Time and tide wait for no man." In addition, it is often used in speeches, presentations or casual conversations to emphasise key points and add rhythm, musicality and impact and can be easily recognised in marketing to create catchy and memorable brand names, such as Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts and PayPal.


Unlike many of the other techniques, alliteration doesn't involve figures of speech. However, it's still considered to be a figurative language technique as the repetition of the same consonant sound in words which are close together provides additional meaning to the literal language of the text and helps to build imagery or mood. For example, "The pitter-patter of rain on the window" or "the babbling brook."


Hyperbole


The phrase, "I've told you a million times!" uses hyperbole to draw attention to the frequency of an action. Hyperbole (pronounced hai-puh-buh-lee) is the same as exaggerating a point, deliberately making an over-the-top statement or stretching the truth and is often used in conversations, literature and advertising for dramatic or comedic effect or to make statements more memorable.


For example, "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse!" exaggerates the speaker's hunger in order to emphasise its intensity and "My heart skipped a beat" or "It was a million degrees outside" are examples of hyperbole that capture the intensity of emotions or sensations and convey them more effectively to a reader or an audience.


Idioms


Idioms are expressions with a figurative meaning which differs from their literal one and, as they are culturally specific, might be one of the more challenging language techniques for non-native speakers.


For example:


1. "Break a leg" = A classic theatre idiom which is used to wish someone good luck before a performance, exam, sporting challenge etc.


2. "A piece of cake" = Very easy or straightforward.


3. "Hit the nail on the head" = When something has been expressed accurately or when you have identified the core issue.


4. "The ball is in your court" = This idiom suggests that it's now someone else's turn to take action or make a decision.


5. "Spill the beans" = If someone asks you to "spill the beans," they want you to reveal a secret or share some gossip.


A sheet of paper with a horizontal tear , revealing the word "Metaphor" in white and on a black background.

Metaphors


Metaphors create a comparison between two seemingly unrelated things, highlighting their shared characteristics. For example, "Her laughter was music to my ears" compares the sound of laughter to the enchanting harmonies of music, "time is money" implies that time should be valued and spent wisely and "I felt my heart sink like a stone" portrays the

crushing weight of disappointment.

Metaphors can also be used to make complex topics easier to understand, such as "The internet is a virtual playground" which makes technology relatable to adults by comparing it to something familiar from their childhood.


Like similes, metaphors help the writer explore abstract concepts, express complex thoughts, create strong connections and comparisons between words and engage our readers' imaginations. , making our writing come alive. However, unlike similes which use "like" or "as" to make comparisons, metaphors state that something IS another thing.


Great works of literature are a treasure trove of metaphors. For example, William Shakespeare's famous line, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" equates life to a theatrical performance, illustrating how we play different roles in our journey. Similarly, the farm animals overthrowing their human masters in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" represents political revolution.


The word "Boom" in a speech bubble on a piece of paper as an example of onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia


One of my students' favourite language techniques, onomatopoeia uses words that imitate the sounds they describe, such as "hiss" and "boom" and helps to engage the reader by helping to make language vivid and expressive.


Commonly associated with comic books where it amplifies the action-packed scenes with sounds like 'Pow!' and 'Bam!' its application extends far beyond the realm of superheroes. Literature, poetry, and even everyday conversations are enriched by the use of onomatopoeic expressions. From the satisfying 'crunch' of biting into an apple to the energising 'buzz' of a busy marketplace, onomatopoeia can help the writer to create vivid pictures with words and evoke powerful sensory experiences. Think about how the light 'pitter-patter' of raindrops on a rooftop paints a serene picture, how a 'clang' of a metal door adds intensity to a suspenseful moment in a story and imagine the cosy atmosphere created by 'the fire crackled and the thunder roared.'


The word "personification" repeated on a white background.

Personification


"The flowers danced in the gentle breeze, whispering secrets to one another" and "The wind howled angrily as it rattled the windows, protesting against the night" are both examples of personification.


This language device is another of my students' favourites as it attributes human characteristics, emotions or actions to non-human things, such as objects, animals and even abstract concepts (and is easy to remember as it contains the word, "person.")


In these examples, the flowers and wind perform human actions or possess human emotions which helps the writer to create more vivid and engaging descriptions, ignite the reader's imagination and elicit emotions, such as sadness or empathy.


While personification can be a powerful tool, it's essential to use it judiciously as too much personification can make your writing feel forced or clichéd. You need to find objects or nature related imagery that enhance your story's atmosphere, behave in a manner which aligns with the characteristics you have assigned to it and make sure you don't over-do it.


The word "similes" written with multi - coloured blocks and ending with a question mark

Similes


Similes compare two, seemingly unrelated things using "like" or "as" and are used by writers to express ideas, evoke emotions and help a reader to imagine a scene, atmosphere, character etc.


Here are some examples of how similes can be used:


1. Emotions and Feelings:

"She was as excited as a child on Christmas morning."

"He felt as though a storm was raging inside him."


2. Description and Sensory Details:

"The sun was as radiant as a golden beacon in the sky."

"Her voice was as melodic as a symphony."


3. Physical Characteristics:

"His eyes twinkled like stars in a velvet night."

"Her smile was as bright as a thousand sunbeams."


4. Comparisons of Strength:

"The applause erupted like thunder, shaking the entire auditorium."

"Their determination was as strong as an unyielding fortress."


5. Similes for Success and Achievement:

"She soared to success like an eagle spreading its wings."

"He ran the race as swiftly as a cheetah, leaving his competitors in awe.



How Can You Practice Figurative Language Techniques?


Mastering figurative language will help you to express yourself more creatively, enhance your writing abilities and secure higher marks in the GCSE English exams. However, it also takes practice so here are some things you can try to improve your knowledge and use of figurative language techniques:


1. Listen to music (and / or read more books)


Listen to a variety of songs and / or read some novels, plays and poetry and pay attention to how figurative language is used by skilled writers. Make a habit of highlighting or noting down any examples that catch your attention and try to analyse what effect they have on the overall message.


2. Keep a figurative language journal


Create a dedicated notebook or document to record and categorise your own examples of figurative language. Whenever you encounter a powerful metaphor, a clever simile or an interesting idiom, write it down with a short explanation of its meaning. This journal will serve as a valuable resource for future reference and help you exercise your creative thinking skills.


3. Practice writing exercises


Start with simple prompts and gradually challenge yourself to expand your vocabulary and experiment with more complex ideas and different figures of speech.

Whether you're writing a short story, poem or even a personal diary entry, try and find opportunities to use metaphors, similes and other figures of speech to make your writing more engaging and memorable.



English tutor and owner of www.englishhomestudies.com

About the Author


I’m a private tutor, a former qualified and experienced secondary school English Teacher and the founder of English Home Studies. In addition to offering 1:1 tuition sessions for students from 9 - 16 years old (Year 5 - Year 11), I create digital and printable revision guides and activity packs.


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