There’s writing, and then there’s effective writing. It never hurts to remind your pupils of that. Of course, a lot of what makes a particular piece of writing powerful depends upon the genre or context.
In many cases, however, it is the choice of words that makes all the difference. At one end of the scale, there is precise, subject-specific or even technical vocabulary. At the other end, there is language that reaches out, grabs the reader’s attention and makes the words jump off the pages. There are many ways of doing this but one of the best is personification.
What is personification? Well, you were given three examples of personification two sentences ago and you’re just about to get another: here are some ideas for making your lessons come alive.
Personification is a literary device, a figure of speech where you apply a human quality, human trait, human attribute or natural characteristics to an object or non human thing. Or alternatively, where you say someone or thing is the embodiment of an abstract concept (such as describing someone as ‘the personification of evil’.
This is not to be confused with anthropomorphism, where an inanimate object, non living thing or non human animal is brought to life and given human behaviour and human emotion. An example of an anthropomorphic character in children’s literature would be Winnie the Pooh (or pick any one of thousands).
- The painting glared back at me.
- The vines were choking the life out of the house.
- The heat followed us everywhere.
- The time flew by.
- The moon and stars were smiling down at us.
Literally or figuratively?
Personification is a form of figurative language. Along with simile and metaphor, it provides ways for the writer to explain or describe something in a way which is not directly comparable yet somehow makes the meaning even clearer. We offer some eye-catching, thought-provoking posters to illustrate all three of these techniques.
The essence of personification is to attribute animals or objects with human characteristics. For example, the moonlight danced on the lake. No one is pretending that moonlight can boogie, but it does give a charming impression of rhythmic movement, possibly due to the ripples on the surface of the water. Think of personification as a type of metaphor.
Spot the personification example
The best way to introduce pupils to personification is to give them some really good examples. It shouldn’t be very difficult to find a wealth of these in any quality, published children’s novel but, to save yourself the bother, why not take advantage of the personification worksheets within our challenge mat resource pack?
Make personification effective
The key thing to emphasise is that personification has to work if it is to be effective. As with other techniques, such as alliteration, repetition and rhetorical questions, personification has a tendency to fall flat on its face if not handled with care.
Make sure your pupils ask themselves whether the human characteristic being used helps the reader or just causes confusion. For example, the trees clung to the steep slopes of the mountain works better than the trees cuddled the steep slopes of the mountain.
What genres use personification?
Not all text types suit personification. Formal writing, such as business letters, demand facts to be presented with precise, unflowery language.
Even a set of instructions should probably avoid personification; there was recently a fashion for using rather eccentric imperative verbs in recipes but this often backfired, so pupils should be encouraged to stay literal where precision is called for.
Personification in persuasive writing
One area where personification can make a big impact is in persuasive writing. Advertisers have a long history of having fun with their word choices, whether it’s playful cars, intelligent ovens or welcoming gravy so it could be worth sharing some examples with your pupils. You might even be able to spot some visual personification too!
Opinions can also be given more heft with some carefully chosen figurative phrases. This ruling makes a mockery of all we have striven for; this book disappointed me on so many levels; fortune must have been smiling upon us when we chose this holiday; and so on.
Personification for scary story writing
Of course, personification really comes into its own in narrative texts. Nowhere is this more true than with scary stories, whether it’s grasping branches, howling winds or sneering snakes.
Why not let your class’s creative juices flow with our scary story writing planner and model text package? There’s a blood-chilling example, some spookily good tips and a long list of creepy words that are bound to seize their imaginations.
Avoid personification clichés
One thing pupils should be warned against is using examples that they have heard many times before. This can be a little tricky to convey as any description will seem fresh the first time you encounter it. The trick is probably to encourage them to use their own imagination and get a clear sense in their own minds of what they are trying to say rather than rely on phrases they’ve heard before.
This sense of having a critical inner eye that helps writers to avoid clichés should be applied in a positive way too. Encourage pupils to look at any description by asking themselves not only, “Does that really work?” but also, “Can I think of a more interesting way of expressing that?”
Personification peer evaluation
Sometimes, however, you are just too close to your own writing and it takes a critical friend to point out whether your words are as effective as they could be. Something that seems to you to capture a moment perfectly might leave someone else cold. It is better to invite a second opinion at the polishing stage than to leave it too late.
However, you should also encourage young writers to stand their ground if they believe the criticism is unfounded. It is quite possible that the reader has simply misunderstood and a gentle defence provokes an “Oh yeah! I get it now!” response.
Hopefully, these tips have opened your eyes to the possibilities of personification and sparked your enthusiasm for teaching it with greater confidence. If so, this blog will have performed its job admirably.