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Meanings and Metaphors

This is a book review by David Overton of Meanings and Metaphors, by Gillian Lazar, (Cambridge University Press - 24 April 2003). David Overton teaches general and company classes in the center and north of Madrid (he lives in Sanchinarro).

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William Christison
William Christison

Teaches English classes in companies and in his own private home.

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Meanings and Metaphors:


“Meanings and Metaphors: activities to practise figurative language”, by Gillian Lazar, is a 34-unit photocopiable resource book. The units are designed to last from 50 to 60 minutes. They are arranged more or less in order of difficulty: the lower intermediate activities towards the beginning, the intermediate and upper intermediate in the middle, the advanced activities at the end.

The book gets off on the right foot by explaining basic concepts in the first unit, which is called, “What is figurative language: metaphors and similes”. Actually in the introduction of the book the author recommends doing Unit 1 first to raise students awareness of these concepts.

Most metaphors are either one of two types: the common everyday kind or the more original creative ones. In the definition of metaphor in Unit 1 the author emphasizes the more creative type, which is as follows: “A metaphor is an imaginative way of describing a person, object or idea by referring to something else that you think has similar qualities to the person, object or idea you are trying to describe”. And then an example is given, “My little nephew is a real monkey”.

I would say that everyday metaphors are more useful to our students, because they’re used in ordinary language, but ironically since they are so common, at times their metaphorical nature is overlooked; yet in original, creative ones, precisely because they are surprising, the metaphor is more obvious, as in the case of, “my little nephew is a real monkey”.

However, conventional metaphors abound in the book. In fact, in the same unit there’s an activity where students read eight texts, which are full of interesting metaphorical language, and match them to their sources, for example, to a Christmas card, an advert, a newspaper article, and so on. In one text we come across “career path”, which refers to the metaphor, LIFE IS A JOURNEY, so we can say we’re travelling down a “road” or “path”, or we are at a “crossroad”.

However, the author explains this is a simpler way, which is probably more effective for most students. She says many words have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. So in Unit 1 students match words to their literal and metaphorical meanings, in this case, “path” is first matched to its literal meaning, which is, “a track that people walk along, sometimes covered with concrete, etc”, and then to its metaphorical meaning, which is, “a set of actions, which leads to a particular goal”.

Actually the teacher may find it necessary to step in and clarify meaning because it might not be immediately obvious what is meant by, “a path is a set of action, which leads to a particular goal”. The context and collocations is the most obvious way to do this, in this case, a “career path” is actions you take in order to get the job you want. The teacher can also use illustrations, actually drawing a timeline and the steps taken to reach a goal; and or course translation (if you have a monolingual class): sometimes the same or similar metaphors are used in the students’ mother tongue.

In order to help the students organise their learning, the author provides a useful, photocopiable Student Record Sheet at the back of the book. Here the students write down the new lexical item along with its literal meaning, metaphorical meaning, an example sentence, common collocations, and notes. This is undoubtedly useful for revision, which students can obviously do on their own, but also at the beginning of class the teacher can have them cover everything except the new lexical items, and in pairs they see if they can remember the literal and metaphorical meanings, and so on.

Most of the units in this book have organized language into “metaphorical sets”. That is certainly the case of Unit 2, which is called “The heart of the matter: parts of the body”, so this unit looks at body parts used metaphorically. It starts off with a drawing of a person with some of the major body parts labelled, along side that are the main functions; for example, “head: top of body, thinking, control”. Students are instructed to read this and decide if they agree and add their own ideas. It might actually make for a more dynamic class if this is taken out of the book and the students come up with their own drawing and label it, then compare it with the one in the book.

By the way, a comment on the teacher’s notes: they’re actually a bit bare, mainly limited to telling you to tell the students to follow the instructions and to giving you the answers. It is nice when they also give alternative ways of doing the activities, like suggesting taking it out of the book as I mentioned above.

But the teacher’s notes do include some comments for the teacher, for example, in Unit 1 there’s a paragraph commenting on the cultural implications of the metaphor “career path”. The author points out that, “British speakers think of work as going in a particular direction which leads somewhere. This view may not be held by all societies.” This does remind the teacher to raise awareness of and discuss the cultural implications of metaphors with the students, because this is in fact one of the main ways a dominant culture is able to shape the way people think around the world: “cultural invasion” being the common term for this sort of thing.

Getting back to Unit 2, after the drawing of a person there are some discovery-approach-style questions in which the students try to figure out for themselves some of the metaphorical meanings of the body parts, for example, the first question is, “How is the head of a company the same as the head of a school?” also, “What is the mouth of a cave? What is the mouth of a river?” In the next part there are some riddles, for example, “What has a mouth but cannot speak?” The answer is a cave or a river. Then in pairs students are invited to invent their own riddles. They might come up with, “What has a head but no face?” The answer: a company or school. Then students read out their riddles to the class, which sounds like a fun and memorable activity.

Unit 2 goes on to expose students to idioms like “to have a nose for a story”, “to lend a hand”. Then there are some discussion question in the form of a quiz. For example: Would you rather be a) a journalist with a nose for a story or b) a volunteer for a charity who wants to lend a hand? At the end you see if you mostly got A’s or B’s and discuss the results.

Unit 3, “Playing the Game”, is quite different from Units 1 and 2 because it’s a game. First students get multiple choice Situation Cards, then they discuss the situation and decide which of the three possible actions they would do (or which is closest to what they would do). This game does come along with some vocabulary work, however if used with a lower intermediate group (which is what it’s recommended for), the teacher is probably going to have to spend some time dealing with the lexis and its literal and metaphorical meanings. For example, the metaphor used throughout is LIFE IS A GAME, however that may not be clear, for example, one of the sentences is “a company wants to be a key player in the computer industry”. So if the company is a “player”, it implies business is a game, with all that that entails, for example, there being winners and losers, and playing by the rules (or not). The teacher would probably do well to pre-teach lexis and clarify the nature of the metaphor in advance.

Unit 4 is called “Time to spare: time and money”. This is obviously based on the metaphor TIME IS MONEY. The first page presents common collocations with “money”, and on the second we discover that the same words also collocate with “time”, that is, we can “invest, lose, make, run out of, save, be short of, have spare, spend, waste” both “money” and “time”. It’s amazing how far our concept of money is used to structure our concept of time. In any case, the unit ends with discussion questions along the lines of “Do you ever feel short of time? When? How do you react when this happens?” So this is an interesting unit.

Unit 5, “A warm welcome”, is based on the metaphorical set of weather vocabulary used to describe people and relationships; for example, the title, “a warm welcome”, and also, “a stormy relationship”, “the museum was dull”. This would be a good supplementary activity when doing weather vocabulary from the regular course book.

By the way, at the end of the teacher’s notes for any given unit, they send you to the back of the book to a revision activity or extension activity for the unit in question. For example, for Unit 3, Playing the game, they suggest students write their own rules for playing the game of life. For Unit 5 they suggest students write a short poem with the following titles: “A sunny smile”, “An icy look”, “A stormy relationship”.

Another feature of this book is that some of metaphorical sets are revisited later in the book, but at a higher level. For example, weather vocabulary comes up again in Unit 30, in this case with expressions like, “I’m snowed under”, which I think is my usual case.

Unit 6 is called “Taking steps: life is a journey”. I mentioned this comes up in passing in Unit 1, now the book looks at the systematic nature of this metaphor. To practice this language the students are instructed to draw their own life map and to discuss it using the lexis, and for homework they can write it up. By the way, this sort of activity is usually better for adults as many younger learners really don’t have much of a life map to talk about.

Unit 8, “Fabulous Fables”, differs from the others because it’s a jigsaw reading in which students read and retell fables, which is interesting and well done. By the way, at the beginning of the book there is a “Map of the book”; however, it doesn’t tell you the type of activity or skill focused on in each unit; for example, it doesn’t tell you that Unit 8 has a jigsaw reading, or for that matter which units have writing activities. This makes the book a little harder to use.

Unit 9, “Ups and downs: describing feelings”, looks at metaphorical ways of describing feelings, for example, “it makes my blood boil when...”. To practice this language you answer some questions that guide you in inventing a story, and then you write it up. By the way, there’s quite a lot of writing in this book. You also write stories in units 11, 13, and 32. There are other types of writing throughout as well, such as articles, poems, and descriptions.

Unit 15, “Marketing your metaphors: advertising”, has a bit of a business focus. It looks at metaphors and similes used in advertisements. First students are told the products and predict how it is sold, then they compare their ideas with the real adverts, finally they write their own adverts including some sort of metaphor.

Other units have a more business focus as well, such as Unit 18 (“Selling with similes”), Unit 20 (where you do job interviews), Unit 21 (“Rising to the top”, where you have to write and advert) and Unit 29 (“Persuasion: Advertising”). These units tend to focus more on original, creative metaphors (the ones the students create themselves) rather than everyday ones, so they’re more skills oriented as opposed to primarily focusing on exposing the students to lexis.

The last unit (Unit 34) is somewhat of an anomaly in the book: it’s called, “The long night of captivity: Metaphors in rhetoric”. This unit looks at rhetorical devices used in Martin Luther King’s famous speech at Lincoln Memorial. For example, referring to the Emancipation Proclamation, he says, “It came as a joyous daybreak to the end of the long night of captivity”. So using metaphorical language he describes slavery as “the long night of captivity” and the Emancipation Proclamation as “a joyous daybreak”: excellent examples of creative and original metaphors. Teachers often supplement course books with articles; this unit can encourage them to notice metaphorical language so in turn they can help their students notice it as well.

This book is full of interesting activities: discussion questions, quizzes, games, jigsaw readings, job interviews. A lot of the activities in the book are creative, which may be because Gillian Lazar has done a lot of work with literature. For example, there are a great deal of writing activities such as stories, poems, riddles, conversations and adverts. And of course the texts and the metaphorical language are useful and interesting. I think both teachers and students can get a lot out of this book.



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        E-mail: madridteacherdavid@hotmail.com.
        Telephone: 912-877-646.
        Cell: 652-93-92-89.



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