Figuring Out Figurative Language

The worrisome aspect about publishing a video is that you’re really putting yourself out there. You’re sharing your content with a potentially large audience that will evaluate and react to your work. If I let the fear of making a mistake or receiving criticism stop me, then I wouldn’t have a single video online. In all these years, I’ve never made a video lesson that was perfect in every way, but I’ve shared enough quality content to engage viewers in a discussion as we figure out things together about the English language. The hope of producing a helpful lesson and learning my subject matter better is what drives me each week.

In my latest YouTube video, I presented the concept of hyperbole. Defining it wasn’t a problem; giving examples proved to be a rather messy task. I began to find overlap between hyperbole and other uses of language, namely idioms and similes. For instance, everything but the kitchen sink is included in some collections of idioms, but is it really difficult to understand this expression? Imagining many things minus the kitchen sink isn’t that far off the target meaning: She had everything but the kitchen sink in her purse. I’ve taught everything but the kitchen sink as an idiom, but I also see this noun phrase as a clear example of hyperbole. In contrast, it’s a piece of cake is clearly an expression you can’t easily understand just by hearing the words. I consider this phrase solely an idiom (well, that and possibly a metaphor).

Can idioms have hyperbole? Can similes be idioms? Perhaps there’s a danger of becoming too bogged down by definitions. Merriam-Webster lists like a bat out of hell as an idiom, but by definition, isn’t this also a simile? I’d say so, and I’d limit it to these two possibilities. Now let’s consider bad news hitting you like a ton of bricks. It’s a phrase that stretches the truth. Right? What categories does this expression belong to? Couldn’t we acknowledge it as an example of hyperbole and a simile?

I believe it’s worth teaching ELLs about figurative speech. They’ll come across it in many situations, not just fiction and not just reading. From TV shows to social media live streams, hyperbole, idioms, and similes are widespread. It helps to have the basic understanding of each type, but learners should know that overlap happens and there isn’t full agreement on the distinctions.

Teaching tips:
1. Over the course of a few lessons, introduce examples of figurative speech. One per lesson is fine. Challenge students to identify the given expression by type. I’d focus on those that appear often in conversation: idioms, similes, and hyperbole. You can select an authentic example so that students can hear the expression in context. Use YouGlish, GetYarn, or a Google (filtered for new sources if you wish).

2. Brainstorm situations in which the expression can be used. For example:
“a million things” (hyperbole) – talking about having many chores or tasks to do, complaining about all the other things you’d rather be doing;

“know which side your bread is buttered on” (idiom) – talking about pleasing your boss, talking about doing work that pays well;

“like watching paint dry” (simile) – talking about a boring lecture, movie, meeting, etc.

3. An online discussion board or a Google doc can be a place for sharing. As interesting examples come up in other lessons, save them in the same place for easy access and reference. Note the meaning, the type, and the context in which it was used. Include any relevant links.

Got any tips for teaching figurative speech? Please share them.

Photo credit: Emotions, Happy, Sad, Face, Adult by Ryan McGuire. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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