One way to engage students in the study of figurative language-specifically similes and metaphors- is to use examples from the songs they like. Teachers in grades 7-12 can point out how the metaphors and similes in song lyrics allow songwriters to communicate their innermost feelings. The metaphors and similes in songs help students to visualize comparisons that are purposefully placed to convey attitude- Sad? Tears of a Clown. Happy? Walking on Sunshine. Dependable? Solid like a Rock.
If a teacher wants to teach similes and call attention to the characteristic comparison word "like", there is probably nothing more iconic then the song Like a Rolling Stone, the 1965 folk rock anthem by Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. A more contemporary song example is Let It Go from the Disney film Frozen where the Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) laments that "The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside." Teachers can show how the songwriters chose similes to help listeners visualize the emotions of the singer, and both of these examples use the word "like" in their poetic comparisons.
For the explicit instruction of metaphors, there is the 2015 country music hit by Keith Urban titled John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16 that begins with a series of rapid-fire metaphors: "I'm a forty-five spinning on an old Victrola; I'm a two strike swinger, I'm a Pepsi cola… " There is also the classic rock and roll hit Hound Dog, covered by Elvis Presley (1956) with its unflattering comparison to someone who is "crying all the time… " Here the metaphors are comparisons are direct but unusual: a singer to a record, a friend to a dog. These metaphors help the listener better understand the relationships in the songs.
Caution: PG Language Only:
While teachers can engage students by having them find similes and metaphors in the music they enjoy, the sharing of these songs in school must include high degrees of caution. There are several song lyrics that are explicit in their use of improper language, vulgarity, or profanity. There are also song lyrics that intentionally use metaphors and similes as coded language to send an implicit message that could be inappropriate for a middle school or high school class. If students will be allowed to share songs and lyrics in class, they must be prepared to share only those verses that are appropriate for use in class. In other words, PG lyrics only!
Here are two linked articles with songs that are already previewed for use in class that can be used to provide additional examples of both similes and metaphors in songs. Several of these song lyrics have already been analyzed to help teach about these key figures of speech:
Article #1: Songs With Metaphors
- "Can't Stop the Feeling"- by Justin Timberlake
- "H.O.L.Y." -Florida Georgia Line
- "I'm Already There," by Lonestar
- "This is What You Came For" -Rhianna
Article #2: Songs With Similes
- "Just Like Fire" -Pink
- "Stiches" by Shawn Mendes
- "Exs & Ohs" by Elle King
Common Core Connection
Teachers still meet the literacy anchor standard in the Common Core for English Language Arts when they use song lyrics to address metaphors and similes:
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
Finally, using song lyrics is one way teachers can "move away from the worksheet" and show students the importance of metaphors and similes in their everyday lives. Research on motivating students also suggests that when students are given the opportunity to make a choice, their level of engagement increases.
Increasing student engagement through choice and allowing them to share how songwriters from every musical genre use similes and metaphors may give students the practice they need to become proficient in interpreting and analyzing figurative language in other kinds of texts.