3 Visual Metaphors for Teaching Writing

Some of the concepts in academic writing that we, teachers, are used to, may be difficult for English language learners to grasp. Using analogies and metaphors is a great way to explain difficult terms related to writing. When I was a student in an intensive English program several years ago, my writing teacher used visual metaphors to help us understand how to better develop our writing skills. So let me share a few of them.

 “Skeleton” (Outline)

This is a pretty straightforward one. By looking at a skeleton—a human being or an animal—we can see the frame of the body and visually imagine the shape of the real organism. The same applies to outlines. An outline shows the structure of an essay, so that the writer can clearly see how to develop it into a more substantial piece. The outline (if well written) also shows the relationship between ideas and themes in the essay, which helps the writer organize them in a logical and coherent manner.

“Bodybuilder” (Supporting Details)

No matter how strong a skeleton is, it’s not a real body, and it won’t live without skin, muscles, blood, and organs. The same principle applies to writing. The outline—regardless of how well it’s developed and organized—needs some “meat” to become a real “body” that lives and breathes. And this is, of course, why we need supporting details. The types of supporting details certainly depend on the writing genre, the topic, the audience, and the author’s individual approach and stance. But normally, teachers introduce the following types of supporting details: facts, statistics, testimonies of authorities, and anecdotes. And once again, the outline will help the writer organize these supporting details in the way that they make sense and fulfill the purpose of the essay.

“Cupcake With Mayonnaise Topping” (Paragraph Unity)

If you are like me, you probably don’t enjoy eating your desserts with mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard. In fact, I’ve never even tried! To me, mayonnaise does not match well with a sweet pie or cake—they ought to have some sweet topping instead of BBQ sauce or mustard. In other words, these condiments that we enjoy so much with savory food do not belong to desserts! This metaphor helps students understand the concept of paragraph unity. When students work on their essays, they need to keep in mind that supporting details in a paragraph form a unified and coherent component of their paper (“cupcake”). So if any sentence does not support, clarify, or explain the main theme of the paragraph, it should probably be taken out because it is “mayonnaise on your cupcake.”

Although these examples are probably a bit silly, they surely helped me understand and apply the terms of academic writing addressed above, so I hope that they also clarify these concepts for your students.

I’d be curious to know what examples, metaphors, or analogies you use to explain difficult ideas to your students.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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6 Responses to 3 Visual Metaphors for Teaching Writing

  1. Maggie Carey says:

    Great analogies and tools. I especially like the mayo on cupcake to show disunity. I have also used the sandwich analogy for paragraph and essay structure but usually draw a hamburger on the board instead. The students like it. As was mentioned by Monique, the buns are the intro and conclusion, the meat and cheese the body, with pickles tomato, lettuce and condiments the supporting details.

  2. Thomas DeVere Wolsey says:

    I love the mayonnaise example. Yuck–mayo on a cupcake?

  3. Monique Yoder says:

    I’ve used an analogy of a sandwich before when writing paragraphs. A topic sentence and a concluding sentence can be seen as “slices of bread” to the sandwich. The supporting details are the meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese, pickles, etc. that go between the topic and concluding sentences. I tell students, “Don’t settle for a single-slice cheese sandwich. Make your paragraph ‘tasty’ by adding supporting details.”

    This past semester, I had a student who was a minimalist when it came to supporting details within a paragraph. I told him, “Your paragraph is naked. Put some clothes on it — give it supporting details so that is can be acceptable to look at by the reader.” This visual worked for him because it not only helped him to see what his paragraph looked like to others, but it also reminded him that there is an audience to his writing: a reader.

  4. Yes! This is great! I would like to add that the “final touches” are what I call the “frosting and sprinkles” on the cupcake. I giggled to see someone is doing something similar 😀

    I LOVE the idea of using ingredients that don’t match as expressing paragraph dis-unity. I hadn’t thought of that. I have used the metaphor of ingredients that don’t match in general to explain collocations in language or improper vocabulary use because of the surrounding context, just recently actually. I have a student right now who really loves academic, formal, and flowery language, but so much so that his writing borderlines incoherency because he doesn’t know how to apply these words. Gosh, it’s such a balancing act to write in formal register without distorting the meaning (or your reputation) in the process.

  5. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    These are great suggestions, Elena! This is exactly what our students need to understand the somewhat abstruse terms we might otherwise use.

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