How to use song lyrics to teach figurative language

Written by shula hirsch
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How to use song lyrics to teach figurative language
Song lyrics lend themselves to teaching figurative language. (jukebox image by MLProject from

Using lyrics to teach figurative language can be effective since students generally love songs and do not find them as intimidating as poetry. Students sometimes respond negatively to the stanza form and language that is different from prose. Although the main principles in lyrics are similar to those in poetry, students don't seem to react in the same negative way. Many students find figurative language in songs to be appealing and challenging.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Recordings of songs
  • Equipment to play songs out loud
  • Hand-outs

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  1. 1

    Describe the difference between literal language which says something using the exact words and figurative language which represents something. Give an example of literal language such as "My love is sincere" and figurative language, "My love is like a budding flower." Discuss the difference. Hand out a list of definitions of terms used in figurative language and discuss the meaning of each with the class. List the following on the chalkboard: "The cat smiled sweetly." "Hush." "He is like a hero from Greek mythology." "He has two fingers." "She is a rose." "The dog barked while being bathed." Ask students to identify which figurative term each of these items describes.

  2. 2

    Distribute copies of the lyrics to Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" or a similar song. Play the song as students follow the lyrics. Ask students to tell what they think the meaning of the title is. What is Dylan comparing to a rolling stone? Discuss this. Tell students to make three columns in their notebooks and title them "literal" "simile" and "metaphor." Have them look through the song, identify as many of these as they can and put them under the appropriate category in their list. Ask a student to read a simile from his list. Have another student read a line in the lyrics that has this simile. Discuss. Do the same for the metaphors. Now look at the literal terminology and compare the effectiveness of getting the meaning across. Discuss.

  3. 3

    Distribute copies of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" or something similar. Play the song. Ask the students to classify the following: "And the piano, it sounds like a carnival" or "the microphone smells like a beer." What type of figurative language is Joel using? What does Joel mean by "Makin' love to his tonic and gin?" or "they're sharing a drink they call loneliness." Discuss these. Have the students convert a line from the lyrics into alliteration and insert a word suggesting onomatopoeia. Share these with the class.

  4. 4

    Assign students to write the lyrics to an original song if they can. If not, tell them to take a simple melody such as "Yankee Doodle" and write at least one line of original lyrics using figurative language. Share with the class.

  5. 5

    Evaluate the success of the lesson by giving a quiz on the terms of figurative language that were mentioned. Grade the papers.

Tips and warnings

  • This material can be used in high schools as well as colleges.

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