AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Similes and Metaphors

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Two basic poetry skills are the function of similes and metaphors, AP* skills 6.A and 6.B respectfully. Most incoming AP® Lit students know these fundamental poetry skills, so instructing them is usually not an issue. However, many have been trained to simply find these elements, rather than to analyze their functions. The key is to get students to see how a poem’s meaning or significance can sometimes rely on a poem’s comparison, such as simile or metaphor.

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Teaching Similes and Metaphors Through Songs

A great introduction to similes and metaphors is reminding students of their commonality in music. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of songs that include similes or metaphors as crucial messages in them. If possible, put students into groups and ask them to listen to one of each songs. It may be better to listen to the song rather than watch a music video, which often makes metaphorical interpretations for its listener. Ask students for figurative interpretations for the songs, each based on central metaphors or similes.

The images link to their YouTube performance, and the descriptions link to their lyrics.

“I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado
“Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac
“Hotel California” by The Eagles
“Ain’t No Half Steppin” by Big Daddy Kane
“Firework” by Katy Perry
Twenty One Pilots Releases New Music Video For “Heathens" - Beyond The  Stage Magazine
“Heathens” by Twenty-one Pilots
“Death by a Thousand Cuts” by Taylor Swift
“Hurricane” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original cast of Hamilton

Another application or expansion for this introductory activity is to ask students to provide the example songs. They can usually deliver on this with enthusiasm!

Focus Poem & Questions – Simile

Students usually brush over similes in favor of their “sophisticated older sister,” the metaphor. However, I like to use Shakespeare’s Sonnet 143 to show the importance of catching every simile. After reading the poem, ask your students to consider the following questions:

Questions for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 143

  1. What is the central narrative or story of this poem?
  2. What is the point of including the image of the housewife and the chicken?
  3. All Shakespearean sonnets include a shift. Where is the shift this sonnet?
  4. What line contains the crucial simile? What makes this simile so important?

Teacher’s Guide

  1. The story of the sonnet begins with an analogy to a housewife who sets down her child to chase an escaped chicken. The speaker compares himself to the forgotten baby, wailing after the mother to return. The speaker then reveals that the chicken in this analogy is another man, and the woman he loves brushes him aside to chase someone else. He ends the sonnet expressing a wish that she would conclude her search and return to the speaker and end his sorrow.
  2. The image of the housewife setting her child aside to chase a chicken is understandable for most readers. While some readers are puzzled by the comparison between a grown man and an infant, the way a mother must put her child aside to chase after something as valuable as a household chicken is relatable. Furthermore, it sets the tone for the speaker’s message on love in the second half of the sonnet.
  3. The shift in message occurs in line 9, when the speaker says, “So runn’st thou…,” explaining his main comparison. Another argument could be for the shift to be in line 11 with “But,” when the speaker concludes his analogy and explains how he continues to pine for the woman who ignores him.
  4. The crucial simile is in line 1, Lo! as a careful housewife…” Many students miss the main message of this poem, simply calling it a story about a chicken. If one misses the word “as,” the comparison is lost, as is the whole message.

Focus Poem and Questions – Metaphor

One of my favorite poems to teach is Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors.” Its title is an obvious choice for this skill, but its riddle-like approach to discussing pregnancy is still challenging enough for AP® Lit students and for stretching them in studying metaphors.

Questions for Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors”

  1. List all the metaphors. Name the central metaphor the speaker is describing.
  2. What significance can you find in the images used in lines 2-4?
  3. What does Plath mean when she says she’s a “means, a stage, a cow in calf” (7)?
  4. How do these metaphors contribute to the speaker’s central message and her mentality?

Teacher’s Guide

This lesson, available for purchase on TpT, includes a slideshow and other materials to help you teach the poem “Metaphors.” It is aligned to other skills from Poetry Unit I.
  1. Literally every line contains a metaphor, some as many as three of them. Ultimately, the speaker is describing her pregnancy, more specifically how she feels in her pregnant body.
  2. The images of an elephant, a house, and a melon are all large, round images, which reflect how the speaker feels about her growing belly. More importantly, however, each image is destroyed for the more valuable item inside of them, indicated in line 4. Elephants are killed for their ivory, houses taken apart for their reclaimed wood, and melons are cut through to get to the meat inside. The speaker is indicating that she feels like her worth lies not with her anymore, but with her growing child inside her.
  3. These are all temporary, transitional images. The speaker knows this feeling is temporary but it is also growing. Aligning with her thoughts in 2-4, the speaker may feel like she’s being treated as a “means” to get a child, rather than a woman with feelings.
  4. The speaker is expressing some resentment at this stage in her life. While she doesn’t show any indication that she will hurt her child, specifically with the line “boarded the train there’s not getting off,” she perhaps didn’t bargain to lose her sense of self to pregnancy.

Suggested Poems for Studying Similes and Metaphors

There are so many poems that work for similes and metaphors, but here’s a short list to get you started!

  • “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” by Joy Harjo
  • “Still I Rise, ” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” or “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou
  • “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne
  • “Essay on Craft” by Ocean Vuong
  • “I am Offering This Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • “There is No Frigate Like a Book,” “There is a Funeral in My Brain,” or “Hope is a Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickinson
  • “sorrows” by Lucille Clifton
  • “Birches” by Robert Frost
  • “Morning Song” by Sylvia PLath
  • “Permanent Lessons” by Eric Anderson
  • “Crossing the Swamp” by Mary Oliver
  • “Harlem,” “Song For a Dark Girl,” or “Dreams” by Langston Hughes
  • “Death of a Toad” by Richard Wilbur
  • “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
  • “Toads” by Philip Larkin
  • “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis
  • “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
  • “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda
AP Skill Spotlights
Looking for other lessons to help with AP® Lit skills? Check out the rest of them here.

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