Linking Prior Knowledge and New Content with Metaphors


In science we use metaphors constantly. We talk about selfish genes, cells as cities, and ping pong balls moving through sugar.

In my first year of teaching, I went into an elaborate metaphor of atoms scattering like bowling pins. After I was done, and feeling very pleased with myself, a girl raised her hand and asked, “Mr. Buell, what’s bowling?” After polling the class, only five students even knew what bowling was and only two of those had ever gone.

Rick Wormeli says that metaphors are a way to help students make meaning by bridging from something they already know to something new. I had built a bridge both to and from nowhere.

In Rick Wormeli’s #ASCD12 session, “Metaphors and Analogies: Power Tools For Teaching Any Subject” I found a nice routine to help prevent this kind of mistake—it’s called 4-Square Synectics. I plan to use this with my class toward the end of units.

(I’m going to make a few adjustments. Because I’m using it for a unit, I’d like a larger list of words.)

For writing the analogies, I’m going to use a sentence frame Rick Wormeli showed in an earlier slide:

Students will also have a second sentence frame:

 “_____________ is (are) NOT_______________________ because______.”

(I added this second frame to help students focus both on similarities and differences.)

As a class, we’ll brainstorm the list of words. After generating the list, students will alternate between using the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ frame. As we become more adept, we will add “except” to the last part of the sentence frame so that now students will justify their choice of metaphor and point out the limitations in the metaphor.

What are some ways you use metaphors in your class?

Wormeli’s session available as part of ASCD’s 2012 Virtual Conference—free to all who attended ASCD’s 2012 Annual Conference—and available for purchase for those who did not.


  1. I really like the this teaching strategy because it solicits higher order thinking. This activity can be extended by students providing evidence to support their answers. To challenge and solicit creative thinking students, I have them make metaphors such as

    How is a gene like a jean? or How is natural selection not like central dogma of molecular biology?

  2. Teaching using metaphors and analogies is a great way to help students build their cognitive muscle. Not only do they learn your content but they can use similar ways of processing content in other classes, even if the teacher isn’t providing them with sentence frames. I call this getting students “ready for rigor”.

  3. Jason,
    I especially like the second sentence frame that you have added to the original idea. I’m sure I’ll use it in my author visits with elementary middle school students. As a children’s nonfiction science author (and educator, too!) metaphors are really important to me!

    One way to extend your idea includes using the sentence frames to help students reflect on informational texts – especially trade books, which tend to employ literary devices well. After reading, students would identify one or more of the metaphors that the author uses and complete the sentence frames based on what they recall from the text.

    For example, in one of my works, I compare and contrast a black hole to a whirlpool. Students’ responses would help us assess their understanding, while teaching student a habit (we hope) o reflecting on the metaphors that are used in explanatory text. Here’s what an appropriate response might look like.

    Sentence Frame 1:
    A black hole is (like) a whirlpool because both a black hole and a whirlpool pull things toward their centers, but their pulling effects don’t work from far away.

    Sentence Frame 2:
    A black hole is NOT (like) a whirlpool because in a whirlpool, it’s always at least possible for *something* to go fast enough to get out of the whirlpool no matter how close it is to the center, but close up to the center of a black hole, nothing – not even light – can leave it.

    Of course, this will work with any text (not just science and not just nonfiction science) – but it would be a nice way to integrate ELA with content-based nonfiction reading.

    In her blog, author Laura Purdie Salas has also made a suggestion on working with metaphors that would add an authentic audience component to the sentence frames you provide. Older students might develop metaphors to explain science ideas to younger students.

    Thanks for this topic!

  4. Many of the students who I teach have low language development. I can see how using metaphors to teach new concepts would be a very successful way for the students to be able to remember the concepts by connecting it to existing knowledge. Students are also able to learn the vocabulary more successfully because they better understand the new concept. The sentence frames are wonderful for providing a foundation for discussion. Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is a good strategy. In some cases, you can also provide a physical demonstration such as setting up bowling pins (or mock ones) and having the students experience scattering them, then drawing an analogy between the two. In this way, the students have a little fun scattering pins, learn what bowling is, and it may improve rapport and be more time-friendly. I definitely see the meta-cognitive benefits of going through the 4-square synectics method and I agree that it should certainly be used whenever possible.

  6. As was stated, science teachers reference all types of things in the classroom. Cell City is one of my students favorite activities because they can actually relate the parts of the city to a cell. There are so many silimarities. The 4 Square Synectics is a great idea to help students brainstorm and think outside of the box to find ways science concepts can be related to things in their “world”. As Ann Nicar said, relate it. Then if possible, demostrate how it is related. Students enjoy being up out of their seats learning hands-on lessons and being able to talk a little about how it relates to the lesson. I will definitely suggest this method with my teacher friends. 🙂

  7. I love that you are using English in your Science class. Too many times students don’t see the connection from on subject to the other. Its great to see that you feel comfortable implementing metaphors to aid your students mastery. This cross-curricular activity will build your students confidence in your class, but in their English class as well. The manner in which you are connecting metaphors and sentence frames to help develop student comprehension is awesome. I like the use of the sentence frames because you are giving your students the opportunity to succeed. Students shut down when they feel overwhelmed by incorporating writing skills in their assignments. By providing them with the frame work, they don’t have to worry about how will i begin this sentence, but rather focus on the key objective of expressing what they have learned with key terms for your class. It seems that this is a fun activity for your students.


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