Top 10 Key Literary Devices

Literary / Poetic devices are used throughout both fiction and non-fiction to add depth, understanding, and beauty to otherwise dreary prose.  Students need to have an understanding of the devices, as well as how they’re used, before they develop the ability to appreciate the author’s careful crafting.

The Top Ten Devices

  1. Metaphor
  2. Simile
  3. Alliteration
  4. Hyperbole
  5. Imagery

  1. Onomatopoeia
  2. Symbol
  3. Repetition
  4. Allusion
  5. Personification

Teaching the Devices

Even though most of us are familiar with these devices, what they’re used for, and how they work, it can be difficult to explain their value and importance to students.  By offering a definition of the device, along with an example, followed by a visual teachers will ensure students gain a strong understanding of the key concepts.  Finally, you can offer an auditory example for students to identify and explain the device to illustrate mastery of the concept.

Note: Ensure you preview all songs, and are comfortable using them in your classroom.


A Metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things – without using the words like or as – with the intention of offering a stronger understanding to the reader.


The girl is a Cheetah on the gridiron.

By comparing the girl to a Cheetah, the reader has an understanding that she is fast.  They may also picture her as sleek, agile, and slightly predatory.  The use of this comparison offers a far deeper understanding of the girl than had the author simply said “the girl is fast”.


Cheetah - Pixabay.jpg

Audio – Commodores: Brick House


Simile is similar to a Metaphor in that it is a comparison of two unlike things, with the intention of offering a stronger understanding to the reader.  However, a Simile must include the words like or as.


She’s as big as an Ox.

This simile informs the reader that she is big.  It also gives that idea that she might have broad shoulders, and strength beyond that which would normally be expected.


Ox - Pixabay.jpg

Audio – Madonna: Like a Prayer


Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter, or sound, at the beginning of a string of connected words.


Though the winter was cold, a number of crafty crimson cats cuddled on the covered porch.

By repeating the “c” sound, the reader’s attention is focused on the crafty crimson cats, even if only unconsciously.


Crimson Cat - pixabay.jpg

Audio – Blackalicious – Alphabet Aerobics


A hyperbole is a large exaggeration to draw the reader’s attention to a specific feature or concept.


This homework is going to take forever!

The homework will not take forever.  It might take an hour or two, but odds are time will not end before the homework is completed.


Homework - Pixabay.jpg

Audio – Katy Perry – California Gurls


Imagery uses descriptive language to paint a detailed image in the reader’s mind, allowing them to better transport themselves into the world of the story.


Walking out of your hostel in Bangkok you go from dry to wet in the time it takes to cross the threshold.  Ash from the nearby noodle stand clings to your arms, made both slick and sticky by the ninety percent humidity.  The scent of burnt pork reminds you of the emptiness from not having eaten last night, choosing instead to spend your last few Baht on the bracelet that still shimmers and shines, while also cutting into your wrist ever so slightly.  Though it growls, your stomach will not be filled today, the only flavour you’ll taste is that of the other passengers sweat as you’re pressed against them on the two hour bus to the Cambodian border.

By describing all five senses, the author attempts to place the reader into the setting, allowing them a better understanding of the needs and feelings of the protagonist.  By writing in Second Person the author attempts to fully place the reader within their text.


Bangkok - Pixabay.jpg

Audio – Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven


Onomatopoeia is used to replace sounds with words.


The fire engine went woosh as it drove past.  Wee-ew! Wee-ew! Its siren let the cars know it was coming.

While there is no word that mimics the sound of a vehicle rushing past, or a siren blaring, we can approximate the noise by doing our best to spell what the noises sound like.


Firetruck Pixabay.jpg

Audio – Nursery Rhyme – Old MacDonald Had a Farm


symbol is when a shape or object is used to represent a much larger concept.


An apple rested on his desk, freshly plucked and ready to be offered.

Due to the literary significance of apples there are a number of implications that could be made based on the above sentence.  Apples are closely tied with teachers, though they also carry the connotation of being poisoned gifts.  Biting into an apple is also related to loss of innocence.  Due to the apple in the above example, the reader can infer a number of things that would not be possible if the fruit were, instead, a kumquat.


apple - pixabay

Audio – The Rolling Stones – Paint it Black


When a particular phrase, or word, appears over and over in a written work, that is an example of Repetition.


A lion looked at me from the porch, its face frozen in stone.  Walking home a lion followed me halfway around the block, until it jumped over the neighbours fence.  A lion looked down at me from my father’s bearded face.  Even as I lay in bed, a lion watched from the stars above.  And I wondered, would I ever find my way back to K2-18b and finally escape from this unspoken persecution?

By repeating the word lion the reader is offered great insight into what the character is perseverating about.


Leo - pixabay

Audio – Daft Punk – Around the World

Looking for more songs that use repetition?  Try here.


An Allusion is when an author references something well known, without literally stating what they are talking about.


“Contrary to the rumours you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-el, to save the planet Earth.”
Barack Obama

By making this statement, Barak is alluding to the fact that he is not Jesus Christ, while at the same time telling people he is Superman.  Through this statement people are given an understanding of who he is, as well as his personality.


cape - pixabay.jpg

Audio – Five For Fighting – Superman


Personification occurs when human characteristics are given to something non-human, including animals.


The lamp hung its head in shame, unable to offer Sandra the answers she so thoroughly needed.

By ascribing the emotion of shame to the lamp, the author draws attention to the natural shape of the desklamp, while also highlighting Sandra working tirelessly, to no avail, on her current task.


lamp - -pixabay.jpg

Audio – Frank Sinatra – New York, New York

A Final Recap

For those looking to use a song as an evaluation piece, I Love the Way you Lie by Eminem featuring Rihanna has a number of devices.

This song can also be used to transition into a unit on Gender in the Media.  A full unit plan can be found at this link.


10 Key Literary Devices – With Examples and Definitions and Explanations.pdf

10 Key Literary Devices – With Examples and Definitions.pdf

10 Key Literary Devices – No Examples.pdf

10 Key Literary Devices – No Definitions or Examples.pdf

10 Key Literary Devices – Song Identification.pdf

Written by…

Michael Barltrop has been teaching since 2006, integrating comics, video games, and TTRPGs into his classroom. He has been the head of English, Literacy, Special Education, and Assessment & Evaluation and Universal Design. Feel free to reach out through Twitter @MrBarltrop!

Feel free to support the website hosting by buying him a coffee or sharing this post on facebook, twitter, or whatever social media is trending these days.

3 thoughts on “Top 10 Key Literary Devices

  1. Gloria says:

    This is incredibly helpful for all students! I teach ESOL and having audio & visual examples is so helpful for them. Thank you!


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