15 Ideas for Using Metaphors and Stories in Class

The metaphor database at Standing in Spirit provides hundreds of stories and metaphors that you can use in your EFL classes. You can of course use them as listening practice or to teach particular language patterns or vocabulary. One of the other useful ways to use these stories is to introduce your students to concepts and ideas that will motivate them and help them to learn more effectively. This  article suggests how 15 of the stories in the database could be used. I have chosen 15 ideas because that is the number of weeks that we have in one semester at our school. These are not intended as lesson plans – simply little ideas that will spark your own creativity. Please share your ideas, too! Oops, I seem to have gone above 15 – there are just too many good things to do with stories and metaphors 🙂

1. Imagine that you could speak English.

Encourage students to consider the possibilities which would open them to them if they could speak English well.

  • How would it feel if you were able to speak English really well?
  • What opportunities and possibilities are open to really good speakers of English?

Suggested Metaphor(s): The General

2. Take responsibility for your own learning

Class time is very limited. I meet my students once a week for 90 minutes. Apart from their English study, they have many other classes. As teachers, we do what we can to help our students learn English, but ultimately a person must take responsibility for their own learning. Some words like “sell” have a natural and required opposite word like “buy”. Even when “Teaching” occurs, that does not necessarily mean that “Learning” takes place! Suggested Metaphor(s): Balls and Cats, The Blue Butterfly

3. There are many ways to learn English

Some students successfully learn English through watching movies. Some achieve it through studying for a TOEIC or TOEFL test. Others learn by listening and singing along to their favourite songs. There are many ways to learn English, and all students can benefit from trying out different ways of learning. Suggested Metaphor(s): Blind Men and an Elephant

4. Set Learning Goals

Having students set learning goals can be very helpful in keeping motivated and tracking progress. There is also a great sense of achievement when the goal is achieved, or at least feedback if it isn’t reached! There are many possible goals. Making a numerical goal of some form is often useful because it can be clearly measured.  Possible numerical targets include getting 700 in the TOEIC test, holding five conversations of at least 10 minutes, reading 10,000 words of English in the semester, or writing two academic essays. Suggested Metaphor(s): Caps

5. Look on Difficulties or Problems as ‘Challenges’

In Japan, we often hear our EFL students say “Eigo ha muzukashii”, i.e. “English is difficult.” And of course, learning a language can be difficult. We can remind our students of other things that they have learned in their lives, such as a sport or a musical instrument and let them notice how rewarding it ultimately can be to overcome a difficulty. Suggested Metaphor(s): The Obstacle in the Road

6. Pay Attention and Notice Things

We want our students to pay attention and to focus on their learning. That will really help them to improve. I like to use this particular story because it talks about how to get good results in tests, and students always pay attention to that! Suggested Metaphor(s): Exam Questions

7. Manage Your Own Feelings

Students have a life outside the classroom (and I am very glad that they do!) and sometimes they bring in feelings and issues that negatively affect their learning. It is good for their learning of English (and for their whole lives) to remind them each person is in control of their own emotions and feelings. In NLP, we use the word ‘State’ to mean the total physical and mental condition that a person is in. A good state facilitates good learning. Suggested Metaphor(s): Two Wolves Inside 

8. Try Something Different

Sometimes students get stuck in their learning and can’t seem to progress forward. Sometimes students come to me and say, “no matter how many times I can’t listen, I never understand” or “I’ll never be able to write a proper essay in English.”  As Einstein is supposed to have said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, and yet expecting a different result. Sometimes, the very best approach to a problem is to do something completely different. Suggested metaphor(s): The Calf

9. You Get What You Work For

There is no royal road to learning. The way to learn English is pretty clear – study it and use it! There’s going to be lots of difficulties (and fun) along the way, but you will get back whatever you put into it. Suggested metaphor(s): The Carpenter

10. See Your Own Improvement

There is so much standardized testing that students are always comparing themselves with other students. Even in cases when a student has improved greatly, she may not recognize this because her peers have improved, too. While standardized testing can be useful in some cases, it is also useful to look back and consider how much you have improved since one year ago or two years ago. I like the story “Choosing the Emperor” because it reminds us that learning and progress is something that we must do as individuals. Of course, working in a group can help, but ultimately learning is a personal endeavour. Suggested metaphor(s): Choosing the Emperor 

11. You Already Have the Resources You Need

Some keen students keep buying new books or DVDs or whatever materials are being promoted in the latest fad. Realistically, the Internet has made resources available for learning English to anyone with a decent Internet connection: Free materials on websites, free dictionaries, free quizzes, free lessons, free telephone calls on Skype … all the resources are now available. The resources are out there, and the teacher can introduce them to students, but the person who needs to learn from them can only be each individual student. Suggested metaphor(s): Treasure

12. You are not your (Past) Behaviour

Some students have been told things like, “you will never be good at English”, or they have acquired this belief by failing a test or getting a bad score. It is useful to separate Identity from Behaviour. Sure, in the past a student may have failed a test (Behaviour), but that does not mean that the student is a failure (Identity). The student may be a Japanese person (Identity), but that does not mean that they cannot speak English (Behaviour). Suggested metaphor(s): Writing Teacher

13. The Impossible can Become Possible

When a student is a low level of fluency in English, it may seem impossible to ever reach a high level and this can be very discouraging. This kind of limiting belief  is very common. Using stories and introducing role models of people who have walked the same learning path can be very useful. Suggested metaphor(s): The Four Minute Mile 

14. One Step at a Time

Pretty much anything can be learned if we break it down into little chunks and take it one step at a time. Suggested metaphor(s): Mountain Climbing, Eating an ElephantThe Starfish

15. Relax in Tests

Tests make people nervous. Unfortunately, in most cases, being nervous is actually bad for your performance. Suggested metaphor(s): The Archer

16. Identify what is Important to You

Get students to think about their own values – what is important to them in their lives and how does English relate to that? For example, some students will recognize that English is helpful for getting a good job. Others will connect English to their hobbies such as travel, music, or soccer. Some students really want to talk to people from other countries. Identifying values can really help to direct learning in the best directions. Suggested metaphor(s): The Fisherman and the Businessman

17. Keep Trying

Learning can be a long old road – keep trying, keep moving forward, stay open! Suggested metaphor(s): The Rose

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