Comprehending Metaphorical Language

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Paul Stewart

Elizabeth Walker


Comprehending Metaphorical Language


A Piagetian Model

Metaphor and Reading Comprehension

Figurative Expressions




In literary use, a metaphor is defined as an indirect comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects that typically uses "is a" to join the first subjects for example: "The moon is a ghostly galleon". Metaphors are commonly confused with similes, which compares two subjects using "like" or "as". An example of a simile: "He was as sly as a fox." In general, a metaphor casts a first subject as being or equal to a second subject in some way. Thus, the first subject can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second subject are used to enhance the description of the first. This device is known for usage in literature, especially in poetry, where with few words, emotions and associations from one context are associated with objects and entities in a different context.



A Piagetian Model

As students go through the developmental continuum, their ability to comprehend more complex language such as metaphors, and similes increases. According to Piaget’s theory of development, there are four stages: sensori-motor (birth to age 2), pre-operations (age 2-7), concrete operations (ages 7-11), and formal operations (ages 11-16). Young children in the pre-operations stage of development may be able to recognize figurative language in conversations; however, they do not have the cognitive ability to comprehend this language until they read the concrete operations stage, around 8 years old, or third grade. Even at the concrete operations stage of development, a student’s ability to truly comprehend figurative language is also dependent on the amount of exposure the student has had to figurative language. All cultures and socio-economic groups use figurative language. The comprehension of figurative language is however dependent upon the student’s prior knowledge of the vocabulary being used in the metaphor or simile. For example, if you are speaking to an eight-year-old and use the simile: "he is strong as an ox", and the child has no schema or prior knowledge of an ox, the simile is meaningless. This ability to comprehend metaphoric language follows the developmental continuum regardless of race or socio-economic status. Some metaphors are however culturally bound; therefore, students of different cultures (due to their lack of prior knowledge of the vocabulary being used) may not understand what is being said. ESOL students for example, have a difficult time comprehending figurative language like “he kicked the bucket” this idiom may be understood by students born in the United States but would be taken literally if taken out of context. Because metaphorical language changes the meaning of text, it is considered contextually bound.


In studying the development of metaphor comprehension, researchers (e.g., Asch & Nerlove 1960; Billow 1975; Winner, Rosenstiel, & Gardner 1976) have shown that the following “stages” occur in children’s ability to interpret metaphor: syncretic responses prior to ages 5-7; the ability to begin to paraphrase metaphor after ages 6-8; and the ability to provide an explanation of the reasoning reflected in the metaphoric paraphrase which begins to appear at 9-11 years of age. If one is to view a child’s progress in interpreting metaphor in terms of prerequisite cognitive structures, it is helpful to keep in mind the general thrust of a Piagetian model of language acquisition.


Cometa and Eson (1978) research showed that as predicted, preoperational children were totally unable to paraphrase (much less explain) metaphors in a manner acceptable to adults. Their findings are therefore consonant with those of Gardner (1974) and Watts (1944) in that interpretations given by preoperational children are largely syncretic and anomalous. It was also clear that the ability to paraphrase metaphors only occurs in children demonstrating concrete operations. When viewed collectively, the stages, which occur in the development of metaphor comprehension, appear to reflect the gradual evolution and application of intersectional classification. A child’s entry into the stage of concrete operations signals the onset of intersection and, as such, enables the child to begin to paraphrase metaphors. A child with access to a fully developed system of intersectional classes is not only able to paraphrase metaphors but can explain the reasoning inherent in metaphoric figures of speech.


Metaphor and Reading Comprehension

Cunningham (1976) conducted a study to being investigation into literary style variables as applied to reading. With the metaphor being one of hundreds of literary style devices, it is widely and frequently used in all genres. Therefore, it was the most logical device with which to begin an investigation of literary style pertinent to reading. The study was concerned with the relationship between the amount of metaphor in a written passage and its influence on reading comprehension. Metaphor, a kind of implied Analogy, was defined as an entity comparing or equating two dissimilar things. The population for this study consisted of all sixth graders in the only elementary school of a middle Georgia county and were generally characterized as predominantly rural, approximately half black, have caucasian. The two passages used told the same story in the same order with the same amounts of conversation. The sentence structure was similar. One passage had no metaphors; the other had several metaphors. Two cloze tests were constructed from the passages. The fiftieth word and each succeeding fifth word were deleted from each passage until there were 25 deletions. The final 30 words were left intact. The mean for the no-metaphor was 10.38 (S.D. = 4.39) and the mean for the metaphor passage was 4.78 (S.D. = 2.91). A t test was performed and showed that the means were significantly different (p<.001). Cunningham concluded that a metaphorical passage could be considered more difficult than a non- metaphorical passage in ways, which readability estimates do not measure and selections from children’s literature may be difficult than previously thought. Finally, there may be a need to better prepare students to interpret figurative language.


Metaphor comprehension is also dependent on the complexity of the language being used, metaphors used as “my pillow is like a cloud” is easier for a student to comprehend than one that is more abstract such as, “ the memory came over me like a turbulent storm”. The use of concrete items like a pillow, is one that a student has knowledge of, and like a cloud makes the analogy much more easily to comprehend than an abstract metaphor. When the metaphors are more abstract like the word memory then children cannot comprehend the Analogy.


Figurative Expressions

Figurative language is non-literal language composed of metaphorical expressions, personifications, similes, hyperboles, and idiomatic expressions. It is used in informative writing as well as in literature, is often helpful to the reader, and is certainly an aspect of communication that students need to learn how to deal with (Carter, 1977). Publishers of reading texts have suggested to the teacher (Devine, 1964) and to the student (Durr, 1974) that figurative language is inserted into a passage to help the student gain a more vivid understanding of the material presented, and to make the author’s writing more interesting to the reader.


Carter (1977) devised a test to determine if the inclusion of figurative language in reading material aided or hindered student comprehension. The test was composed of twenty sentences, which contained examples of figurative language and was administered to a seventh grade class in a suburban middle school. The students were directed to read a sentence containing a figurative expression and then answer a question about that sentence. These questions could not be answered without knowledge of the figurative expression. The results of the test were so dismal that a supplementary test was devised. The original twenty items were altered. Seven were rewritten by excluding the nonliteral language and substituting literal phrases; context clues were inserted in seven sentences to further explain the expression; and, though six sentences were left intact, and explanatory picture clue was drawn next to the item. The modified test was administered to another seventh grade class in the same school, composed of children with the same range of reading scores found in the original group. Two important observations sum up the results of the supplementary test: 1) the students were better able to understand the sentences without any figurative expressions, and 2) the explanatory context and picture clues did not produce acceptable levels of understanding for all items. To teach understanding of figurative language a teacher must concentrate on meaning. In many instances material must be self-made. Even though there are fine teaching tools on the market to teach figurative language, many teachers do not have access to them.



Metaphor is so pervasive that every single word of our language may have originated from a metaphor. Some thinkers have even suggested that all language may be metaphorical. Given the importance of language among our mental faculties, some thinkers go even beyond and maintain that metaphor is a key element of reasoning and Critical Thinking in general. In other words, being able to construct and understand metaphors (to transfer properties from a "source" to a "destination", from "nightmare" to "marriage", from "jungle" to "room", etc.) may be an essential part of being a mind. Thus the ability to comprehend metaphorical language hinges on the students prior knowledge of the words being used in the metaphor.


Metaphors are usually introduced through instruction when students are in fourth grade. Students must be able to transfer what they know about language to make sense of the often puzzeling play on words. Children show interest in using figurative language at young ages, in a pre-school classroom you can often hear the conversations in dramatic play as children try to imitate the adults in their home. These attempts are often plays on commonly used figures of speech like “you know its part of the core” instead of “that’s par-for the course” or “you better put the petal on the pedal” instead of “put the pedal to the metal”


In the beginning stages of the ability to use and comprehend metaphoric or figurative language, starts with pretend play, taking two objects with similarities and renaming one of them, like taking a piece of string or yarn to make a tail and turning around and saying, “look at my tail” referring to the string or yarn as a tail.


Asch, S. E., & Nerlove, H. (1960). The development of double function terms in children. In B. Kaplan & S. Wapner (Eds.), Perspectives in psychological theory. New York: International Universities Press.


Billow, R. M., (1975). A cognitive developmental study of metaphor comprehension. Developmental Psychology, 11, 415-423.


Carter, B. B., (1977). Helping Seventh Graders to Understand Figurative Expressions. Journal of Reading, 4, 553-558.


Cometa, M. S., & Eson, M. E., (1978). Logical Operations and Metaphor Interpretation: A Piagetian Model. Child Development, 49, 649-659.


Cunningham, J. W., (1976). Metaphor and Reading Comprehension. Journal of Reading Behavior, 4, 363-368.


Devine, T. G., (1964). Manuel for Teaching Discovery through Reading. Boston, MA: Ginn and Company.


Durr, W. K., (1974). Diversity. Atlanta, GA: Houghton Mifflin.


Gardner, H., (1974). Metaphors and modalities: how children project polar adjectives onto diverse domains. Child Development, 45, 84-91.


Johnson, J. (1991). Developmental versus language-based factors in metaphor interpretation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(4), 470-483.


Steinberg, J.W. (1999). Mastering metphor through poetry (Electroni version). Language Arts, 76(4), 324-332.


Watts, A. F., (1944). The language and mental development of children. London: Harrap.


Winner, E., Rosenstiel, A. K., & Gardner, H., (1976). The development of metaphroic understanding. Developmental Psychology, 12, 289-297.


Winner, E., (1988). The point of words children's understandingof metapor and irony. MA: Harvard University Press.


External links:

http://www.uia.org/documents/biblio/resmeta.phpResearch on Metaphor, Comprehension and Future Governance
http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-94775624.htmlMetaphor comprehension as problem solving: an online study of the reading process.
http://www.thymos.com/univ/lang.pptMetaphor: how we speak
http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/themes/azmetap.phpDocuments relating to Metaphor for Governance
http://york.cuny.edu/~seitz/NonverbalMetaphor.htmlNonverbal Metaphor: A Review of Theories and Evidence



Commentary by Maleesa Redish


I liked how you pointed out the fact that ESL students may have trouble understanding metaphorical language. So much of the English language is spoken in idioms and metaphors that would be very difficult for an "outsider" to comprehend. I have noticed that very young children (as you mentioned) also encounter difficulty comprehending metaphorical language. During read aloud I find that I have to stop often to define metaphors and similes that the author has used to make the story more colorful. I read a story today that talked about it "raining cats and dogs"; this is a prime example of strong metaphorical language. I enjoyed the content in and attention to detail that you have put into this page.


On a grammatical note, in your introductory paragraph you stated that a "metaphor is commonly confused with similes". In order for this to sound more grammatically correct you may to reword it so that it would say "metaphors are commonly confused with similes". I also noticed a typo in the following section " Young children in the pre-operations stage of development may be able to recognize figurative language in conversations; however, they do not have the cognitive ability to comprehend this language until they read the concrete operations stage, around 8 years old, or third grade." In this part the word reach should be used rather than the word read.




Commentary by Raiza Garcia


This was a very informative wiki. I have found in my experience with struggling readers that metaphorical language can be very difficult for students to understand. It is very important to discuss figurative language with students or they might not comprehend the text. I did not really understand why you added the top ten metaphor list, I don't see the connection to reasons how metaphorical language effects comprehension of readers. You also had a typo in the summary section. You spelled students as "studnents."


Another suggestion would be to add an external link on strategies to help students understand metaphorical language. Great overall job on the wiki.

Commentary by Amanda Hatten

Hey folks! I like the way you incorporated the trouble people have with confusing metaphors and similies. One problem I noticed was that the single term “simile” did not have a link set up because the plural had one. I also appreciate how you incorporated ELL students into this information because I know how difficult a time they have learning our language and then all the informal dialogue makes things that much more complicated. I found another article that may be useful for you, It’s about why the metaphor comprehension is so difficult to aquire. Here’s the link:

http://lsa.colorado.edu/papers/KintschBowles.pdf-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- ---- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

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