Young People, Criticality and Figurative Language

This project will contribute to knowledge about figurative language understanding and use among 9-13 year olds (tweens). It will explore tweens' understanding and use of the framing function of figurative language in two related areas: ideological arguments and new concepts. The first is important because through digital technology and social media, tweens almost everywhere have unprecedented unsupervised access to content from sources that may seek to distort and falsify reality. Digital and social media are factors in the recent surge in right-wing populism and racism. The second function, the framing of new, especially abstract and non-immediate concepts, is important because it is widely agreed that metaphors underlie many of the ways in which we think and talk about the abstract.

The project will use corpus data from existing sources, with support from Oxford University Press who are allowing access to their Children's Corpus. These will be supplemented with new data collected through the project partner schools. Interviews and think-aloud tasks will be conducted with groups of tweens, to produce knowledge about how they understanding ideologies and concepts that have been framed through figurative language, and to what extent they can use figurative language themselves to express their views and knowledge.

Project aims

The project will produce fine-grained descriptions of:

  • the forms and functions of figurative language used in written texts and spoken discourse that tweens are likely to access in social and educational settings; 
  • tween readers' and listeners' reports of their understandings of such figurative language; 
  • the forms and functions of figurative language used by tweens in social and educational settings; 
  • tweens' reflections on their use of figurative language. 

It will thus develop a detailed description of figurative language use with and by tweens, and of their awareness of its potential framing functions. The project will make important contributions to metaphor theory within cognitive linguistics, and to the study of first language acquisition. The findings will also have significance outside academia, for instance, in critical literacy education, which seeks to enable young people to engage thoughtfully with news and social media, with awareness of the existence of distorted and false narratives.


International Corpus Linguistics Conference; Researching and Applying Metaphor