Reading and Literacy

Teaching through Metaphor and Analogy

By Karen Hume

All learning happens through connection. We make sense of new information by forging connections to something we already know. For example, early automobiles made sense to people because they were described as “horseless carriages.”

When connections are unusual or unexpected, they can lead to creative insights that result in new ideas. For example, William Harvey compared the heart to a pump, which paved the way for his discovery that blood circulates.

Understanding existing ideas and creating new ones rely on recognizing and comparing similarities and differences across concepts—in other words, on making connections. Three forms of figurative language are most often used for this purpose:

  • Metaphor—This word from old Greek literally means “to carry” or transfer ideas from one set of concepts to another. Example: The cell is a factory.
  • Simile—A simile is a metaphor that uses like or as in the comparison. Example: Your eyes are like a camera.
  • Analogy—This form is the most challenging because it involves comparison of two sets of relationships. Example: Furs were to North American Aboriginal peoples what cash is to today’s consumer.

Enliven your teaching and help your students perceive the world in new ways by trying any of the following:


  • Post in each corner of the room a picture of something that can serve as a metaphor for a concept you are teaching. Ask students to go to the metaphor that best matches their thinking and to discuss with the other students in that corner why they chose that metaphor. Each group then summarizes their thinking for the class. Tip: Use images that involve action. Action images, such as putting out a fire, lead to richer metaphors.
  • Take students on a 20-minute walk, looking for objects and situations that make interesting metaphors for concepts you are studying. Students can take photographs or make lists. When they return to the classroom, have them choose one image or list item and fully develop it as a metaphor. Share results in a gallery walk.
  • Have students create collages using magazine images that metaphorically represent a concept or some aspect of it. They can label each image with a word or phrase and then complete the sentence

“My concept is a lot like ____ because it….”

  • Check out The Private Eye. You will find lesson plans that make use of a jeweller’s loupe (a magnification tool), and great questions to help your students make creative and often profound connections between the natural world and the concepts you are teaching.

When you have a minute, please share a metaphor, simile or analogy developed by a student. Here’s one to kickstart our list:

“School is like a toaster. You put something in and it comes out better than it was before.” – Maddison, Grade 6

Karen Hume is a well-known Canadian teacher, administrator, author, speaker, and workshop leader. She has her M.Ed. in curriculum and teacher development, has been a member of a university research group funded to investigate the role of talk in the classroom. Karen is also a member of the editorial board of an online action research journal. Her latest publication, Tuned Out: Engaging the 21st Century Learner (Pearson Canada, 2010), is a practical resource for educators that focuses on improving student engagement in the 21st Century. For more information, visit Karen’s website or connect through Twitter: @humekaren