Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Teaching Metaphors

During the #eltchat about coursebooks on Wednesday 11th May 2011 a few metaphors for teaching were mentioned. Lizzie Pinard quoted them in her excellent summary of the chat:

@Chucksandy summed this up beautifully: “Good cooks know what can be left out of or put into a recipe, or added as a side dish. Good teachers using course books know the same thing.” Or, as @OUPELTglobal put it, the course book should be used like a map with the route and pace being set by the students and the teacher.

This is not the first time metaphors like this have been used in the chats, but this time it got me thinking about how we describe the processes of teaching and learning languages to our students.

I’ve already posted about the ‘high’ I get when I can successfully communicate in a foreign language. I created my other favourite language-related metaphor when responding to students complaints about learning grammar, although I think it can be used to describe the process of learning languages in general too. Please note, it’s only meant to give an image to my students, without being completely factually accurate! It goes a little something like this:

  • Everybody wants grammar to look like New York. Nice straight lines, turn left here, turn right there…
  • In fact, it looks a lot more like London, with random twists and turns, a few bits that might resemble where you’re from, but many others which are completely unfamiliar.
  • And although London might seem scary at first, especially if you’re dumped in the middle of it with no map, you CAN get to know it. All you need to do is spend time there. And the more time you spend there, the easier it is to find your way around. You’ll even get to the stage where you can go places automatically, without thinking about which way to go.
  • In exactly the same way, the more time you spend with grammar / a language, the easier it is to use. You can find your way around, make educated guesses, and eventually use it without thinking about it. But you’ll never know how to do all of the this unless you make an effort and ‘wander round’.

This way of thinking about language seems to have really helped some of my students, and has even meant that a couple of them have started putting in slightly more work!

So what metaphors do you use with your students? Or when thinking about your teaching?

Comments on: "Teaching Metaphors" (10)

  1. That’s an awesome metaphor! Thanks for sharing!! Unfortunately – our school doesn’t let native teachers teach grammar (I’m kinda sad about that.)
    I haven’t used metaphors as much, but when my students try to tell me that English isn’t important for them and their department, I usually try to tell them how much language has helped me just in everyday thinking! I have student about 4 foreign languages now, and I am only using one of them, but each of them has given me a new perspective in my thinking, and that is just as valuable as knowing the language in my opinion!!


    • Hi Kylie,
      I haven’t pulled the metaphor out much, but it has been useful a few times. One of the reasons I love learning new languages is gaining those perspectives and concepts which don’t exist in English. They really are a doorway into another world.
      Where do you teach? It is a shame that native speakers don’t teach grammar there, but on the other hand, it does mean that non-natives are valued there (I hope!)


  2. I love it! I am definitely going to use this metaphor with my students 🙂

    Remember the metaphor we had in the previous weeks #eltchat, about language learning beyond intermediate level, about it becomes less like a river and more like a lake and students get sluggish to keep swimming?

    I’m going to have to start thinking of metaphors I can use with my students. Isn’t it wonderful, all this sharing ideas? Every day it encourages me to think about something else that I wouldn’t have thought to consider otherwise!

    Great blog, by the way! Am much enjoying it! 🙂



    • Hi Lizzie,
      That was one of the other ones I was thinking of, but couldn’t remember 🙂
      Glad you enjoy the blog – I love writing it! And I agree that sharing ideas is great – I get so much inspiration round here 🙂


  3. That map metaphor is a great idea! just thinking about it gave me an idea for my students:
    Our high school is fairly old and has weird additions to it. It is quite puzzling when you are a new student (or teacher!) to find your way around. But then, of course, it gets easier.
    Never thought of using that – thank you!


  4. […] Sandy Millin’s Teaching Metaphors: Really interesting post on how she shares her view of language learning with her […]


  5. Hi Sandy,

    Very nice Sunday morning reading !



  6. Hi Sandy,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.




  7. Always kick off with new class with ‘Memory like a sieve’ – excuse for forgetting names;-)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: