It’s all in the picture: teaching the analysis of imagery

12th November 2017

Imagery- love it or hate it, there is no doubt that most children find analysing it tricky at best. But what is it about explaining the effect of a writer’s chosen imagery that stumps the best of us? From similes to metaphors, personification to pathetic fallacy, I will guide you through the maze of figurative language.

Welcome to Part 4 of my Teaching Reading blog. This week I am going to give you practical ideas and strategies to make the understanding of imagery easy to implement in your classroom. First, I will give you some teaching ideas for each of the 6 main forms before discussing ways to comment on the effectiveness of them.

1.      Similes. Probably the easiest to teach- I have seen fantastic teaching of similes in Year 2 classrooms and up. Comparing one thing to another using like or as is a fairly easy instruction, and many children can do this without a lot of adult support. But when you get as fast as a cheetah for the tenth time, or as black as midnight, it is time to talk to your students about clichés. Overusing phrases we all know destroys creativity, so it is important to ask your students to come up with their own ideas. Of course, the younger the child, the easier it is to get away with clichés as often they actually are their own ideas, but beyond Year 4 expect that students should be able extend their creative arm. Yes, it will take time. None of us can come up with original thought without putting the work in, so acknowledge that good writing takes time.

A fun starter to play with your class is to fill a bag (it can’t be transparent) with some everyday items such as a nail file, scrubbing brush and a teddy bear. Ask one child to come up, look in the bag and describe the item to the rest of the class. The only rule is that the child can only use similes to do it. Judge how your class will do with this task. It may be that for the first couple of times that you play it you choose students who are confident and competent using similes so that the game doesn’t end up taking up the whole lesson.

2.      Metaphors. The more complex cousin of similes has a similar function, this time though to describe one things as another. Where most of your class will be able to give you similes, transferring this knowledge to metaphors seems to be a big step. My main teaching point is that the comparison has to be appropriate, and for this reason, I am going to describe the (perhaps controversial) way I teach them.

First, you need to teach the children about connotations (associations with a word) and denotations (the actual meaning). This about the word Scotland. The denotation is that it is a country. The connotations could be thistles, whiskey and haggis. The next step is to give the students a metaphor which is clearly not true. I used to write on the board, Mrs Creighton is a pig. Internally I would laugh when I saw their faces because even at secondary level none of the students would dare to write such a thing. We would then talk about the associations we would have for a pig. Commonly I would receive answers such as dirty, smelly and fat, which I would then write on the board. I would then ask whether any of these points ACTUALLY described me to which the answer was no. I was then able to explain that it wasn’t a good metaphor, and encouraged the students to think about associations that could be true.

3.      Onomatopoeia.  I have heard this term being described as sound words; words which sound like the thing they are describing. This is probably the easiest term to teach, and there are a variety of ways students can list some.

I allow my students to create definition pages in their books, and by far the best ones are for onomatopoeia. I usually use the theme of bonfire night so that students can draw their own firework scene and annotate with words like bang, whizz and crackle.

4.      Personification. Personification gives human qualities to inanimate objects, and I would argue it is easier for students to use than metaphors.

Ask your students to brainstorm human actions they would want to use, for example, dancing, guarding or whispering. Play a game where each of the verbs is written separately on pieces of paper and objects are written on others. Lay the cards out like a game of pairs, and ask students to create sentences. They may create examples like, the rock guarded the entrance or The Aurora Borealis danced in the sky.

5.      Alliteration. Alliteration is where the initial sound of words are repeated within a sentence. With younger children you might want to only think of an adjective and noun that start with the same letter (succulent sausage) whereas with older students you can use onomatopoeic words too (The wind whipped wildly).

6.      Pathetic Fallacy. Pathetic fallacy is where a writer uses the weather to reflect the mood or atmosphere of a scene. If you are introducing it for the first time, using videos can help the students visualise what is happening. I have previously used Lady and the Tramp (where the dog is run over at the end) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (where Neville is upset by the stained-glass window).

Ask the students to work in groups to assign an emotion to each weather type, e.g. rain is sad, thunder is bad-tempered etc. then ask them to write one sentence showing the mood through the weather only. Peer-assess and use the best examples for your working wall.

Now for the harder task: analysing the effect. Students have to understand that good writing is constructed- that one doesn’t just throw down any old ideas and call it a narrative (something I continually say to my students). Let’s suppose here that the writer has chosen good examples in their work. There are two things we need to do next: understand the connotations and also understand the effect and meaning of individual words chosen.

Neither of these tasks are particularly easy, but I would argue that understanding the effect and meaning of words is easier if only through our use of dictionaries and thesauri. Knowing what a range of words mean, including synonyms and antonyms, will make this task much easier. If you want specific ways to help improve a child’s vocabulary then see Part 3 of this reading blog.

Then we must understand the connotations. If you have already taught the different forms of imagery, you can use the practical tasks to help students identify the process the writer has used. Explore the connotations of words, in groups if this is easier than individually or in pairs. Ask the students what they think the writer is trying to show us about individual characters or scenes by the words and images they present to us. Does the writer use positive or negative words?

Ultimately, being able to explain the effect of imagery comes down to how well a child understands what they are reading. A wide range of challenging texts, exemplars and tasks designed to promote new vocabulary will pay you back dividends in the end.

Return to part 3.                                                                                   Go to part 5.