As every child can recite, a simile compares two unlike things using the terms like or as. This doesn’t mean, however, that the child understands what this means or even that he or she can identify a simile in a sentence. Teaching similes in such a way that their purpose and identification are clear to students can be accomplished using a range of teaching techniques such as games, graphic organizers, and good old-fashioned reading.
Students need to understand the purpose of a simile. A really effective simile is a literary device and as such brings a deeper layer of understanding to something in the text. It might make a description reverberate, provide insight into a character, or in some other way make a poem, story, or line of dialogue resound. Simply highlighting these when sharing a text is an effective way of teaching similes, helping students understand why and how they add to meaning.
An important thing a teacher should stress when teaching similes is that there are really two types. The first are clichés that come about in one of two ways. One type of simile clichés are those that are so obvious that they hardly bear repeating. For example, the statement “the clouds are fluffy as pillows” is a cliché because pillows strongly resemble clouds visually, and pointing this out doesn’t bring any deeper level of understanding.
One way a teacher can drive this point home is with a graphic organizer. Giving students two columns of common objects and asking them to find the pairs points out that some similarities exist on the surface and really don’t run very deep. One column might contain a drawing of the sun, worms, and a flower. The second column’s pictures could include a pretty woman, a button, and a bowl of spaghetti. The pairs are obvious, which means the similes that could be created about them are obvious.
Another type of simile, also a cliché, is one that has been repeated so many times that it has lost its ability to bring the aha moment that a good simile does. The first person to describe someone who was "as old as the hills" must have gotten a good laugh. In fact, a well-crafted simile often results in laughter as it surprises with its dead-on accuracy, and as a result, such similes are repeated so many times that they become ho-hum. Asking students to draw the simile and give it new life will drive this point home. Drawing someone on all fours in a pigpen who is eating like a pig brings the laughter back to the simile.
Teaching similes should include a lesson to inspire deeply considered similes; one way is by bringing in dozens of familiar objects. Students can contribute to the collection by bringing in their own objects or drawing sketches of whatever suits their fancy. Working as groups or individually, students can select two objects that are highly dissimilar then point out something about the two that connects them. For example, love is like an unraveling sweater in that, unless it’s taken care of, it will fail to keep the wearer warm.