What is Literary Devices? An Amazing Writing Tool, Quickly Explained

One of my favorite things of all time to teach is poetry because I see students shine while creating these short writing projects.  Poetry elevates my struggling writers to share their work with confidence.  Poetry helps my students find their voice and learn a lot of writing skills too.  Teachers love to teach literary devices through poetry.  However, literary devices entail so much more than we think off the top of our heads.  

When Did I Ask Myself What is Literary Devices?

I am writing this article after avoiding it for a few months because when I first started my research about literary devices and figurative language it was so much more complicated than I expect.  I realized, after getting my master’s degree and over 10 years of teaching, I didn’t have a clear understanding of literary devices.  It’s embarrassing to realize. 

As a gymnastics coach, I would teach my gymnasts compulsory routines every year.  The directions were so specific that even after 3 years of teaching the same routine I would check the directions to make sure the right hand went forward upward sweeping in towards the chest in a circle and up to vertical.  The whole routine is written like that.

However, I never in my teaching career looked at what the difference was between literary devices and figurative language.  I never looked for a more specific understanding of how these writing skills are connected and support writing.  What I knew was that literary devices are important.  What I did see was how much better my students’ writing got when they started using literary devices.

Why Do We Need a Better Understanding of What is Literary Devices?

When we teach our students literary devices their writing goes from dull to interesting.  It helps them grow as writers and say what they want to say with more clarity.  Literary devices can be a game-changer for an ELA teacher. But literary devices may not be exactly what you think.  If we can teach literary devices with more clarify it could help our students understand and use them better.  

What is Literary Devices?

Literary devices are strategies used by an author to share his/her message.  If the author uses the literary device correctly it supports the readers’ understanding of the message.  This means that the reader can visualize, interpret and/or analyze the writing.  

Beyond that, there are two types of literary devices: literary techniques and literary elements.  

What is Literary Devices as Explained by Other Teachers

Literary Devices and Terms

10 Common Literary Devices (With Examples)

What are Literary Devices

Learning What is Literary Devices and How it Fits with Other Terms

It’s time we as teachers learn the difference between literary devices, literary techniques, literally elements, and figurative language.  I don’t think we need to give our students a test on how these all fit together, but I do think our teaching can be more effective if we understand each of these writing terms.

What is Literary Devices & How Do The Terms Fit Together?

English is a complicated language.  Spelling, grammar, and writing all have pieces that overlap and work together.  Everything about English is not linear or clear cut and neither are these writing tools.  

All of the terms we are going to discuss are literary devices.  Technically we can say they are literary devices, teach it to our students that way and we are correct.  We could start to teach our students literary devices under one term, but it could lead to confusion later.  At least if we understand all of the terms we will be better equipped to support and teach our students.

Literary techniques fall under the umbrella of literary devices. Writing is all about expressing our thoughts and ideas and literary techniques can help us do that.  Literary techniques are the words or phrases a writer uses to creatively express themselves.  Literary techniques bring writing from boring to artistic.  

Literary Techniques will also help the reader when they read.  The reader will be able to visualize what the writer is talking about.  Literary techniques also lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the story.  Have you ever read a story so good that you sat there at the end just in awe of how great it was?

Here is a quick list of some common literary techniques: 

  1. Allegory – when the story represents more than it appears on the surface, usually symbolically. Examples include The Tortoise and the Hare and Animal Farm.
  2. Allusion – is an indirect description of something.  We allude to things all the time.  The word allude clarifies this for me a lot.
  3. Anthropomorphism – is when human traits are applied to things like objects, animals, or weather.  It’s different from personification because it’s talking dogs in cartoons.  Disney movies hold many examples like Beauty and the Beast or Cars
  4. Exposition – is when a story gives background information to help the reader invest and understand.
  5. Figurative language – is when the writer goes beyond the literal meaning of the word to creatively say what they want to say.
  6. Flashback – is when the writer splits up the story between the past and present day.  The writer could be building suspense, building background information, or preparing for a big reveal.
  7. Foil – is when the writer illustrates or reveals information about a character with a contrasting character.  The foil reveals values, motivations, or traits about a character, usually the protagonist that creates a deeper understanding of the character’s actions and choices.
  8. Foreshadowing – is when the author drops hints, but leaves out facts to make the reader curious.
  9. Parallelism – can be the repetition of a word or phrase.  It can also be opposite sides of the same idea.  Examples include no pain, no gain and cousins by chance, friends by choice.
  10. Repetition – is when the author repeats themselves to make a point or create an atmosphere or feeling.

There are be more literary techniques not listed here, but here is a start.  Some of these you might recognize and others you might not.   

I am sure you noticed that figurative language was on the list of literary techniques.  We are stacking umbrellas here because literary devices are the big, overarching term, then there are literary techniques that get much more specific, and within writing techniques, we find figurative language.  

Figurative language is one of my favorite things to teach, especially in poetry lessons.  But we are here to talk about what figurative language is.  Figurative language is when the writer goes beyond the literal meaning of the word to creatively say what they want to say.  Figurative language often makes the reader stop and think, relate to what is written, or get a strong picture in their head.  You can see how that is all related to literary devices and literary techniques.  The key to figurative language is that it is beyond the literal meaning, literally.  

A list of figurative language:

  • Adage or proverb – is a short saying that a majority of people belice is true and holds wisdom.  
    • Tis better to have loved and lost. Than to have never loved at all. – Alfred Lord Tennyson
    • Slow and Steady Wins the Race. – Aesop
  • Alliteration– is repeating the first consonant sounds in a word two or more words.  (Some people consider alliteration a figure of speech and others do not.  It does not take language beyond it’s literal meaning, but rather emphasizes the sounds in words.)
  • Analogy – creates a comparison by showing how two different things are alike.  The comparison also add information or provides context.
  • Cliche – is an expression that is overused and worn out.  It’s an expression that used to be meaningful and described abstract concepts well.  
  • Hyperbole – is an exaggeration that is unrealistic, but helps make a point and increase the reader’s understanding.
  • Idioms – is a saying used by people of the same language or culture that is widely understood and goes beyond its literal meaning.  It might be confusing to people of other cultures.  Examples include ducks in a row and piece of cake
  • Irony – is when things seem like they should be one way, but they are really another way.  There are three types of irony: dramatic, situational, and verbal.
  • Metaphor – comparing two unlike things without using the words like or as.
  • Onomatopoeia – is a word that imitates the sound it represents or sound words.  Learn everything you need to know about onomatopoeias in this blog.
  • Oxymoron – is two contradictory words that describe one thing.  For example “sweet sorrow.”
  • Personification – gives inanimate objects human qualities. 
  • Pun – a pun is a play on words.  Puns use words that have similar or identical sounds but different meanings.  For Example Denial is a river in Egypt.
  • Simile – comparing two unlike things using like or as.
  • Symbolism – is when there is a tangible symbol to represent an abstract concept.  For example, the eye doctor sign symbolized God’s judgment in The Great Gatsby.
  • Understatement – is when a writer makes a situation seem less important than it really is.

There are other types of figurative language, but these are some of the most common you will encounter and teach.

Teachers teach literary elements all the time, but what you might not have realized is that literary elements are the second category of literary devices.  Literary elements are a writing strategy that help create a story.  

Literary elements are the pieces that make up a story.  Literary elements are all the parts of the story that the writer needs to create a story that makes sense, progresses, and connects to the reader.  All stories need at least some literary elements.

  1. Antagonist – the character or group that opposes the protagonist.
  2. Characterization – is the process the writer uses to create a character and have them emerge from other characters.  It sharts with an introduction, descriptions of behavior, and revealing of thoughts and feelings.
  3. Climax – is the part of the story where the tension or conflict hits a high point.
  4. Conflict – is the struggle between two opposing sides, often the protagonist and antagonist.
  5. Diction – are the language choices the writer makes to create a style and voice for the story.
  6. Imagery – is when the writer shows instead of telling through descriptive language and sensory details.  It paints a picture with words for the reader.
  7. Mood – is how the writer wants to make the reader feel as they read the story.
  8. Motif – is a recurring symbol, concept, or image that helps develop the story. 
  9. Narrator The person who is telling the story
  10. Plot – is the structure of the story including events, actions, turning points, conflict, and a resolution.
  11. Point of View – is the view the story is told from.
  12. Protagonist – is the leading character and is often viewed as a hero by the audience.
  13. Setting – is when and where a story takes place.  The reader needs an established time, location, and environment with detailed descriptions.  The setting impacts the plot and characters throughout the story.
  14. Tone – is the overall mood or message of a story.
  15. Theme – is the message the writer is trying to share with the audience.

What is Literary Devices?

Literary devices include so many important aspects of strong writing.  There are different types of literary devices.   Each is a different tool, with a different purpose.  When we understand these better as teachers we can more effectively support our students in their learning.

More Poetry and Writing Articles

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Here is Your FREE Prompt for Writing Poetry

I know that you needed a prompt to help kickstart your students’ writing.  Here is an entire lesson for FREE.  My Our School Poem guides students through using sensory language to describe their school. The step-by-step directions guide your class through the writing process with all the necessary worksheets make this the perfect lesson for your classroom.

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