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How to Use the Simile - For ESL Teachers
Figures Of Speech
All you need to know about similes is right here. Keep your students as busy as bees as they learn about this fascinating figure of speech. Enliven your ESL classes with some traditional examples of the simile, as well as introducing your students to new and fresh ideas.
You will find exercises for your class, interesting facts, how to use similes in a sentence and in a poem - plus I've added websites with resources - worksheets, examples and more - to help your teaching go like clockwork. Check out the video Simile Song too!
Get your students to complete a simple sentence or two using a well known simile. Show them an example first. Here are some to get you going:
Similes fall into 5 categories:
as unhappy as King Lear
as happy as Larry
as gentle as a lamb
as wise as an owl
my love is like a red red rose
clings like ivy
as white as a sheet
slept like a log
sings like an angel
like a dream come true
Similar But Not The Same
Similes allow us to compare and contrast one thing to another. Usually the prepositions as and like are used, as in the examples in the first paragraph. It helps build a more interesting picture of the world around because it stirs our imaginations and introduces us to new ways of thinking.
Everyone uses similes, they bring humour and images into our lives in odd and idiosyncratic ways. They can also be used to help explain a concept or idea we may have that is difficult to articulate.
Life is like a bowl of cherries - delicious looking, shiny, wholesome, tasty, and good to share with others.
Often they can be a bit of a puzzle. For example, I recall my mother's favourite when I was a boy. If I came home caked in dirt from head to foot playing outdoors she'd say 'you're as black as old Harry's nutting bag' which didn't mean much at the time! But you see the simile my mother used added colour and stimulated my brain.
Who was this elderly man called Harry? Did he collect sweet chestnuts or hazel nuts? And put them all in a deep and well used collecting bag!
Other family favourites with mysterious origins were 'as daft as a brush' which was said of someone when they were acting silly and 'as fit as a fiddle' used to describe a lively, healthy and agile person.
Rooted In The Culture
Different cultures have very different similes, different cultures share similar similes! For instance in the Netherlands if something tastes nice they declare:
like angels cycling across my tongue
which is similar to the English
tastes like heaven.
Rural culture features heavily in Russia and Lithuanian similes. Two examples are:
like a squirrel in a wheel (when someone is extremely busy)
adorned like a Whitsuntide cow (when someone wears a fancy hat or scarf)
Australia has some very down to earth similes. Two of the less colourful include:
that went down like a lead balloon ( that didn't go very well)
that's as rare as rocking horse •••• (that's extremely uncommon)
Whilst the good old USA has this beauty:
as happy as a tick on a fat old dog (very contented in an I'm -not- moving- anytime -soon sort of way)
You can find many more examples of simile here:
You can find many more poems with similes in them here:
Look For Similes In These Bird Poems
- 10 Bird Poems
Original poems about birds. How different birds inspire different kinds of poetry.
Why Use Them In Writing?
Using an appropriate simile in a poem or work of prose can liven up the line or paragraph and connect strongly to the reader's imagination. It's a bit like adding spice to a dish or tangy juice or fruit to a dessert - you have to add just the right amount or you may ruin the overall effect. The same goes for a simile. Use the wrong type of image or get the images mixed up and you could easily upset, confuse or lose your reader!
So only use similes you know will work or your writing could end up like a meal without salt.
Similes In Modern Poems
Some modern poets use similes in their work and often achieve great success. You need to be careful in the number of similes you use; too many and you'll overcook the meal.
One outstanding simile is often all you need in a short poem. Take Sylvia Plath's opening line for example in her poem Morning Song:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
A fat gold watch reflects the physical nature of birth and the preciousness of time. Do you think it works?
Seamus Heaney uses a tree in the poem Song:
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Wallace Stevens the American poet also liked to use simile. Here is a rather beautiful example from his classic first book Harmonium.
Six Significant Landscapes
The night is of the colour
Of a woman's arm:
Night, the female,
Fragrant and supple,
A pool shines,
Like a bracelet
Shaken in a dance.
Similes In Your Own Work
If you're keen to compose poetry or write prose and want to include similes I'd say be cautious in how you use them. Similes can be like pernicious weeds and undermine all the good stuff you've 'grown' on your page!
Keep them simple and rooted in the proper culture.
I came across these two examples recently and although I think they still qualify as similes I'm not too sure about them:
as softly as a wild bird's wing.
like a white-clad girl tip-toeing to her own reflection.
What if the wild bird is a 15 foot Andean condor? Is the white - clad girl a ballet dancer on a sheet of glass or ice? These two don't seem to stand on their own like a traditional simile should so I would avoid writing anything that is vague.
Ancient and Modern Songwriters
Pop and folk songs and other ballads are full of similes often relating to the pain and joys of life and in particular love. Take this Irish traditional The Curragh Of Kildare:
My love is like the sun that in the firmament does run
and always proves constant and true
But hers is like the moon that wanders up and down
And every month becomes something quite new.
Musicians like Bob Dylan use them all the time:
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
and Leonard Cohen:
Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Similes seem right at home in some songs and a good songwriter can use several in a lyric and still getaway with it! There are some howlers that have been employed however - have a look here:
My honey, my flower, to me you're like a spring shower,
The lightest rain I know helps make the perfect rainbow.
for the worst sort of simile in a song - and you'll quickly understand the importance of choosing the right sort of image to get your message across!
As You Like Them
Similes are found in many poems both modern and old. They add flavour and richness to the text. William Shakespeare was a master of the simile. But, look at the first line of his most famous sonnet No 18 :
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Is this a pure simile? It doesn't contain 'like' or 'as' so technically speaking it isn't a simile. It's a straight comparison. If he had written 'Shall I say thou art like a summer's day?' this would have been a simile but we wouldn't have had the most famous of love sonnets!
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Shakespeare had a knack of using them in a pure form and then blending them with and into metaphor. He does it again and again in several of his plays, most notably in the second scene of Henry V where he uses the ancient Roman poet Virgil's subject of bees :
......for so work the honeybees
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
Shakespeare's plays contain hundreds of similes many of which reflect our profound connections to nature and the animal world. One particular favourite of mine appears in a comedy, Twelfth Night, where Olivia's servant Fabian addresses the hesitant Aguecheek.
Fabian: (in the company of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch)
.......and you are now sailed into the north of my
lady's opinion; where you will hang like an icicle
on a Dutchman's beard, unless you do redeem it by
some laudable attempt either of valour or policy.
Twelfth Night, Act Three, Scene II
This simile seems to suggest that Sir Andrew will be compared to a lump of elongated ice, frozen out and looking rather like a useless appendage on a foreigner's beard! Fantastic image! Unless he acts (and challenges a youth who had been shown favour by Olivia to a duel, so proving his valour to the lady he loves).
Another famous use of simile by Shakespeare comes in the Act 4 of Romeo and Juliet.
Capulet says ' Death lies on her like an untimely frost'.
An image that is literally chilling yet hauntingly beautiful.
Similes will probably never go out of fashion. All languages it seems are in need of them because
- they're a link between the past and the present.
- they brighten up and enliven both text and speech.
- they relate to the concrete and the supernatural.
- they contain irony and sarcasm and wit.
- they create beautiful images in our minds.
You can find some useful worksheets here:
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© 2012 Andrew Spacey