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August 2014
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Using Metaphor to Teach Second Language Writing
by Ha Hoang

In the middle of the 20th century, metaphor started to be connected to human cognition. In 1980, Lakoff and Johnson published Metaphors We Live By, a seminal work which used evidence of daily speech to point out that metaphor is pervasive in everyday language and, more important, that metaphor can structure thinking. According to Lakoff and Johnson, “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5). This definition stipulates that metaphor is conceptual, that is, it has to do with the mind, not just with language. Our basic daily life experiences with our body, senses, food, and so on shape the way we perceive the world, and give rise to conceptual metaphors, which are re-represented in different modes, one of which is language. For example, we say

It is difficult to digest all this information at the same time.
His points are hard to swallow.
He devoured the book.

because ideas are conceptualized as food. So here we have a conceptual metaphor—IDEAS ARE FOOD (conceptual metaphors are capitalized according to cognitive linguistics convention)—and a number of expressions that we use to manifest this conceptual metaphor.

The application of metaphor to language teaching is situated in the cognitive linguistics paradigm. The elicitation of conceptual metaphor has been employed as a powerful tool to study teacher and learner beliefs. Raising learners’ awareness of metaphor has been found to aid comprehension and retention of unfamiliar figurative language. In addition, researchers study the patterns and dynamics of the linguistic metaphors in texts to investigate ways to help learners master the process of making meaning via metaphor.

Along the same lines, I will discuss how metaphor can help with a second language (L2) writing class, focusing on how it can aid the L2 learners in writing conceptualization, idea development, and word choice.

Writing Conceptualization

Using metaphor to help learners conceptualize their own writing fits well into the process approach to writing. Teachers can invite learners to reflect on what they think of writing with a simple worksheet that elicits metaphors by asking learners to complete the following sentence:

I think that writing/a writing course is (like) . . . because . . .
After important milestones in the course, teachers can change the worksheet:

After . . . , I now think that writing/a writing course is (like) . . . because . . .
I have (not) changed my mind because . . .

Teachers can also help learners elaborate on their metaphors of writing by extending their metaphors (i.e., using metaphorical entailments, to use the cognitive linguistics term). For example, if a learner sees her writing course as a trip, ask her,

Where are you heading?
How do you picture your destination?
What luggage have you got?
What challenges do you expect to experience along the way?

This elaboration can be part of a peer response session or a group feedback conference. Because metaphor has the power to activate the “known” to prepare for the “unknown,” it can bridge gaps in knowledge and learning, giving both learners and teachers the metacognitive tool to explore the learner writing world. The activity can be incorporated into the learner’s portfolio of the course to track the changes as she develops as a writer over time. As metaphor is usually strongly imageable, to make it more appealing for the portfolio, teachers can have learners sketch their metaphors into artworks. This can work very well for young learners, whose world is often richly visual.

Developing Ideas

As a writing teacher, this has happened to me many times: A learner complains that she does not have ideas or she cannot express her ideas. Metaphor can offer two solutions here for learners to generate ideas and clarify their points. They can use metaphor signaling devices such as A is like . . . , A is B, which/who . . . , A is B because . . . , If . . . to call for the supporting details of the idea in point. Analogical thoughts that come after these expressions are metaphorical in nature. For example, in order to support her point that Literature plays an important role in life, a learner writes, If a person knows everything in the world except for literature, he is building a tower without foundation.While sentences such as this do not exert additional while-writing cognitive load in terms of language structures, their explanatory power is beyond doubt. The metaphorical example clarifies what the writer wants to say, giving weight to her argument.

Another way is to encourage learners to use free writing, especially in the first drafts. A lot of writers’ interesting ideas are lost in their mind as passing thoughts in the writing process while they should be included in the writing product itself. In a study that logs computer keystrokes to track the process of metaphorical word making among second language learners (Hoang, 2013a), I have found that in the quest for words, learners call on different metaphor-related mechanisms such as creative metaphors, mental images, and analogical associations. However, these interesting ideas do not make their way into the writing, leaving the readers with abrupt pieces of thoughts. For the choice of see the world [in books], a student explained,

A literature work opens in front of us just like life. In literature there is sadness and happiness, so we can use those things to perceive and see the world around us.

Another thought that

in modern life, there is a lot of competition and pressure. But if the humanitarian values we read in books remain with us, when we step out into life, we can find good values in life.

But she simply wrote,

They [books] help us understand about life.

The writer-learners thus need to be aware of their own processual reasoning and learn to put down all their free thoughts in the first drafts. When they are better at shaping these free thoughts into supporting details, they can ask self-reflective questions such as Why do I use this word? Do I need to clarify it? and discard unrelated ideas.

Choosing Words

It is relevant to repeat here that metaphor is no longer a mere literary device to add flowery language to texts. Metaphors are indispensable to communication; “there is no division between metaphor and discourse, given that metaphors are both products of discourse and creators of discourse” (Gibbs & Lonergan, 2009, p. 251). On average, in English written discourse, one in every seven and a half words is metaphor related (Steen et al., 2010). The immediate implication for the second language writing classroom, and language teaching in general, is the need to give metaphorical language the attention it should receive. Knowledge of metaphorical word senses is one important aspect of vocabulary learning, reflected in the metaphorical potential of familiar words, the extended metaphorical meanings, metaphorical collocations, and semantic prosody of a word (semantic prosody refers to the attitudinal and functional interpretation of a lexical item in relation to its contextual surroundings). It allows the learners to achieve precision and encourages creativity and flexibility in word choice. Current literature seems to be occupied with vocabulary size, probably because vocabulary depth is more elusive by nature. However, whether a learner can use words correctly and appropriately is as important as the number of words that she knows.

It is found that language learners tend to misuse words due to a confusion of different senses of a lexical item or different lexical items that have synonymous senses but different usages, which results in an awkwardness in their writing (Hoang, 2013b). If we take verbal collocation as an example, persistently across four different undergraduate year levels, in a corpus of 396 second language essays, 27.76% of the metaphorical verbal phrases are miscollocated, such as in the following examples:

Reading can bring up your soul.
We should remain reading habit in young people.
Reading widens my mind.

How is this related to metaphor? Metaphor, generally speaking, is realized when there is a conceptual transfer from a concrete domain to an abstract one. When a word is used in a sense other than its primary concrete sense, this conceptual transfer occurs, and a metaphor emerges. For example, in build a relationship, build is not used in its primary sense of “to build something physical”; it is used metaphorically. One way to help learners make meaning via metaphor (i.e., attain depth of vocabulary systematically) is to draw their attention to the motivated nature of language, specifically to the concrete sense of words. The concrete sense refers to an entity which is physically and psychologically real, which makes it easier to understand and remember. When learners can establish the link (or motivation, to use the cognitive linguistics term) between the concrete sense and the extended sense, the target item is easier to remember because the learning process is deep and grounded as compared to mere acceptance of arbitrariness. Boers and Lindstromberg’s (2009) book is an excellent guide for teachers who would like to incorporate this insight into their classroom.

Another way is to use corpus-based activities. Corpora provide a lexical playground where learners can freely explore how a word performs, behaves, and plays in its real contextual environment, especially how it collocates and colligates with other words. Concordance patterns also show affective values and discourse functions of words. For example, when dogs and other animals are used as nouns, they are used nonmetaphorically; when used in the verb forms (to dog, to squirrel, to horse, to weasel), they are metaphors and carry evaluative values (Deignan, 2005). Depending on the learners and objectives of the lesson, teachers can have them work on one or more patterns of a particular word, of words of the same family or same grammatical properties. Such activities can raise learners’ awareness of the extended metaphorical senses of words and their usage patterns. This awareness will help them learn to use words in context and become more efficient writers.

Concluding Remarks

In this article, I have outlined that metaphor can help conceptualize writing, provide materials for the arguments and improve the lexis profile of a piece of writing. It is hoped that writing teachers recognize that metaphor is not the icing on the cake. Metaphor is not a matter of decorating a piece of writing. It is a basic ingredient of effective writing; the writing process starts with metaphorical thoughts and grows with the metaphorical language that writers use.


Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2009). Optimizing a lexical approach to instructed second language acquisition. Houndmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deignan, A. (2005). Metaphor and corpus linguistics. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Gibbs, R. W., & Lonergan, J. E. (2009). Studying metaphor in discourse: Some lessons, challenges, and new data. In A. Musolff & J. Zinken (Eds.), Metaphor and discourse (pp. 251–261). Houndmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hoang, H. (2013a). An investigation into EFL learners’ metaphorical thoughts. Paper presented at the Psycholinguistics Interest Group Workshop, Wellington, New Zealand.

Hoang, H. (2013b). Is it vague and awkward? A text analysis of second language learners’ use of metaphorical word senses in writing. Presented at the 12th Symposium on Second Language Writing, Jinan, China.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Steen, G., Dorst, A., Herrmann, B., Kaal, A., Krennmayr, T., & Pasma, T. (2010). A method for linguistic metaphor identification: From MIP to MIPVU. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.


Ha Hoang is currently a PhD candidate in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. She has taught for several years at the tertiary level in Vietnam. Her research interests are second language writing, discourse analysis, cognitive linguistics, and metaphor.

NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in SLW News (March 2014). Used with permission.

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