There are times when I feel a bit stupid as a teacher.  I find myself teaching all of these concepts that I either never learned when I was a child, or that I have forgotten long since.  In fact, I’m still wondering if I ever truly knew how to analyze figurative language before I became a teacher.

And that’s why I’ve tried to take a different approach.  A lot of the time, teachers try to help students learn about figurative language in isolation.  We give worksheets with cute pictures and one-line phrases that help students identify or differentiate between a variety of types of figurative language.

And for me, they did pretty well on the worksheets.  They learned to look for key words, and they learned to identify through comparison.  But what I began to realize, in little time, was that it wasn’t sticking, for the most part.  If it was sticking, it wasn’t teaching them the true meaning of understanding figurative language.  Instead, it was teaching them simply how to find it.

But what’s the point in finding it if you don’t understand it?

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

If we use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a gauge, it becomes clear that there is absolutely no point in finding figurative language if students cannot understand the author’s use of it.  When simply finding figurative language, a student is channeling one of the lowest levels of knowledge: identification.  It falls into the blue category on this chart: knowledge.

While this knowledge is important, it is oftentimes relied upon too heavily.  In fact, from what I can remember of my elementary school instruction, it was the majority of what was expected of me.  But how can kids see the relevance if we are only focusing the lower levels of knowledge?  How will they see the point in ascertaining all of this knowledge if they are not using it in any meaningful way?

Isn’t it ironic?

This is especially true with irony.  Since it is such a complex concept, it requires time and an authentic experience in order for kids to be able to truly understand it.  They need to be given time to climb up Bloom’s Taxonomy, so that they are recognizing it through close and careful reading.  It also needs to be broken down into it’s respective types, in order for kids to be able to identify it in different contexts.

Situational Irony – “The Sweetest Fig”

Situational irony is the most typical of “the ironies.”  I explained it to the kids by saying it was “the exact opposite of what you thought was going to happen.”  This can be difficult for them, because some of the equate a simple surprise as ironic, but in order for it to be so, it needs to be a dramatic difference from what they thought was going to happen.

Courtesy of Google
Courtesy of Google

In The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg, the main character, Monsieur Bibot, is an arrogant and selfish man who mistreats everyone, including his little dog, Marcel.  He works as a dentist and one day has a client who offers him two figs as payment.  She claims they’re magical, he kicks her out, and he refuses to believe that they are, in fact, magical.  After eating one of them, he realizes that they do actually make his dreams come true, as the woman said they would.  He tries to make himself dream about being rich, so that after eating the second fig, he will wake up rich.  His mistreated dog, Marcel, ends up eating the second fig, and in the end of the story, Marcel and Monsieur Bibot end up switching places–due to the dog’s wishes.

The key to helping the kids understand the irony here comes from the process of reading the story–not the isolated moment that is “ironic.”  I’ve found that having the kids predict a great deal while reading these sorts of stories helps them to see the irony.  In this story, in particular, a lot of the children were able to predict that something bad would happen to Monsieur Bibot, mostly because he possesses negative qualities and can be seen as the “antagonist” in the story.  However, most of them thought that he would simply not end up rich at the end.  They never dreamed that he would end up switching places with the dog, and that the dog would be the one who gets his wish.  Truly, the dog’s character is written in very artfully by Van Allsburg, as he seems like a minor character that will play no significant role until he ends up eating the fig–until the end, of course.

But by letting the kids predict and ask questions frequently throughout the story (a practice known as DRTA, or direct reading thinking activity), they are able to compare their predictions with the realities they face in the story.  This makes the discrepancy much more real, helping to reveal this abstract concept of irony.

Verbal Irony – “We Real Cool”

“We Real Cool” allows kids to identify a verbal irony, more commonly referred to as sarcasm.  In Gwendolyn Brooks’ relatively famous poem, she essentially mocks gang bangers and their lifestyles.  She mentions all of the bad things they do like “thin[ning]/gin” and “sing[ing]/sin,” but abruptly ends the piece with “We/Die soon.”

This is very surprising for kids, but it gets them interested and oftentimes provokes a reread of the text.  In fact, I suggested that the kids reread this poem at least 4-5 times due to its brevity but simultaneous complexity.  In my opinion, this is the easiest of the ironies.  They can pick up on the sarcasm rather quickly.

Dramatic Irony – Fables, Folktales, Shakespeare

Finally, there is dramatic irony.  I described this to the kids like a horror movie–that scene where the character is walking to the closet–everyone knows what’s in the closet–but the character doesn’t seem to.  However, that doesn’t seem to ruin the experience for us.  We still are just as excited and left in suspense as we would have been; in fact, due to the knowledge we have, it might even be more exciting.

Essentially, dramatic irony refers to a situation where the reader knows something that the character doesn’t–something important, too.

I was happily surprised when I found out that dramatic irony is wildly present in fables and folktales.  Narcissus and Echo and the Flight of Icarus are just a few places where this sort of irony can be found.  For instance, in Narcissus and Echo, the readers can see that Narcissus is wasting away in front of his own reflection, but Narcissus is unaware of this reality.  Likewise, readers can tell that Icarus begins to fly too close to the sun, even though he is not aware of it himself.  Of course, many readers will probably predict that he is going to disobey his father early on in the story, too.  If you’re looking for some enrichment, you can find adapted versions of some of Shakespeare’s plays, written as stories, through which students can experience dramatic irony with a more complex text.

Happy ironing!

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