Similes in the ESL Classroom
Time flies like an arrow.
A legend as old as the hills.
These are examples of a figure of speech called a simile. Similes are used to illustrate a point or elicit an emotion by comparing two objects or actions equally. The word simile comes from the Latin root similes, meaning sameness or likeness. The words similar and facsimile also use the same root.
Similes are commonly used in literature but are also regularly used in conversation.
Similes can be recognized by the grammar patterns ".... as (adjective/adverb) as ..." or "(verb) like ...". The original word or phrase of a simile is called the tenor, and the word or phrase used to illustrate the tenor is called the vehicle. In the two examples above time and legend are the tenors, and arrow and hills are the vehicles. The tenor and vehicle of a simile share some characteristic associated with the adjective, adverb, or verb, but otherwise would not literally be compared with each other.
Sometimes the adjective, adverb, or verb use a different meaning of the same word to compare the tenor and vehicle. In the simile, The boy lies like a rug, both a boy and a rug can lie, but the boy doesn't tell the truth, and the rug is spread out on the floor. The man smokes like a chimney is another such example.
Similes can be easily introduced into ESL lessons to stimulate the students' creativity, interest, and humor while teaching parts of speech (adjectives, nouns, and verbs) or the comparative grammar forms.
Parts of Speech
The activities here will work as the building blocks to creating similes for practicing the comparative patterns below.
Write several adjectives (hard, busy, flat, white, etc.) on the blackboard. Have your students write three or four nouns or noun phrases that can be associated with the adjectives. Encourage noun phrases and secondary meanings of the adjectives. As an example, under the word hard you can write the words rock, their last English examination, week-old bread, and walking up Mt. Fuji with a twenty kilogram backpack. Have the students share their lists of words and phrases in groups or with the class.
Next, write types of animals (fish, dogs, cows, eagles, etc.) on the blackboard. Animals are commonly used in similes because of their familiarity. Have the students come up with a list of three or four verbs associated with those animals. As an example, under the word fish, you could write swim, drink, and flop around when out of the water. Likewise, write some inanimate objects (ice, homework, silk, their textbook, etc.) on the blackboard and have the students come up with three or four adjectives for each. Again, have students share their lists.
Comparative Pattern Practice
Similes are useful for learning and practicing the "... as (adjective/adverb) as ..." and "...(verb) like ..." comparative grammar patterns. After introducing these patterns, use the list of adjectives, nouns, and verbs that the students generated above to create a complete simile by combining the tenor, adjective or verb, with the vehicle. As an example, write the sentence, My last English examination was as hard as climbing Mt. Fuji with a twenty kilogram backpack. For further practice, students could change the vehicle to use the words they came up with and add a new tenor; for example, The bread was as hard as my last English examination. Use this same activity for creating similes with the animals and objects using both the "... as ..." and "... like ..." grammar patterns.
Have fun with similes and encourage imagination. You can use similes to enhance your students' creative English language abilities.
Similes are not limited to the English language. If you are teaching English to people of a culture different than yours, encourage your students to share their language's similes. You and your students will gain much insight into each other's cultures.
The similes below are so common that most have become cliché in their usage. However, they will give students a good idea of simile formation and usage.
Match the sentence on the left with the simile on the right. Write the letter on the line next to the number.