Visual and Verbal metaphors – developmental interactions

I’m still trolling through the research on children’s use of metaphors… a lot of it is notably old (but that doesn’t always rule it out as useful!). A lot of it also seems to focus on comprehension and communication, more so than creation and conceptual use of metaphors.

In 1990, Cathy Dent and Lois Rosenberg published a study in which “compound objects, that is, visual metaphors, were compared with standard objects as a means of triggering descriptive verbal metaphors for children and adults. Our measure of comprehension was the use of verbal metaphor,” they explain, “after we had modeled verbal metaphors as ‘new and different’ descriptions of the objects presented.” (p.991) “Using visual metaphors in a comprehension task,” they proposed, “we could obtain information on children’s abilities to comprehend visual metaphor, developmental changes in these abilities, and whether adults tend to draw on information outside the visual metaphors.” (p.983) The children in the study are 5 years and older and the authors rely on statistical analysis for their findings.

They wrote that “Metaphors are powerful because they draw on shared experience of perceptible natural objects and events, and on the ability to understand one kind of thing in terms of another. Visual expressions of metaphor trigger verbal metaphors, even in young children, but detailed changes in metaphoric perception, thought, and language with development have yet to be charted. Visual metaphor studies may be particularly fruitful for researching these developments.” (p.994)

In pictorial metaphor, one thing is depicted in terms of another thing that is different in kind, but bears an actual resemblance to the first object. Some properties of the vehicle object must be present in the depiction of the topic object in order for the depiction to be metaphoric, but the complete vehicle object is not depicted. The metaphoric ground or resemblance is highlighted in the visual metaphor, and topic-vehicle interaction is explicit. Thus, pictorial or visual metaphor is analogous in structure to verbal metaphor, although in the case of pictorial metaphor no words are used.” (p.984)

“Taken together, studies of the pictorial or visual aspects of metaphor and metaphoric similarity indicate that detecting resemblances between objects and between people and objects is an early ability (Dent 1984a; Kogan et al., 1980), although the types of resemblance detected proliferate between ages 5 and 8 and after age 8 to adulthood (Seitz & Beilin, 1987). The use of verbal metaphor about visual metaphors has shown no change in frequency from 5 to 8 (Seitz & Beilin, 1987), whereas linear increases from 5 to 10 were shown in describing metaphorically similar objects (Dent, 1984a; Dent & Ledbetter, 1986).” (p.985)

While the authors acknowledge that analysing children’s comprehension of visual metaphor by assessing their verbal communications is problematic, (“Detailing just which verbal statements truly indicate comprehension of metaphoric similarity or visual metaphor is difficult.” (p.985); see also their concluding discussion), Dent and Rosenberg rely on the assertion that “Verbal metaphor is an indication of comprehending visual metaphor because verbal metaphors are based on the same structure.” (p.985)

The authors decided that “Visual metaphor, as presented in compound objects, does seem to trigger metaphoric thought more often than just metaphoric similarity, as presented in pairs of standard objects, and for adults given the visual metaphor in combination with a request for an ‘unusual’ description, the metaphors produced tend to draw on objects and/or grounds not presented visually. Finally, contrary to expectation, even for adults visual metaphors more often elicited specific counterpart verbal metaphors than did metaphoric similarity alone. The effects of visual information for topic-vehicle interaction seem to be powerful at all ages. These results are a beginning in specifying relations between visual and verbal metaphor and the improvements in comprehending visual metaphor that take place with development.” (p.992)

They also found that “The effects of motion information on the comprehension of visual metaphor (compound objects) and metaphoric similarity (standard objects) spanned all ages. ” (p.992)

They write that “With experience, children develop a variety of grammatical forms they can use to express metaphoric meaning. Five-year-olds used similes hardly at all, whereas the other children did, although not as much as adults. We know very little of how a grammar of metaphor develops; the syntax of metaphor is uncharted developmental terrain.” (p.993) What an interesting point!

They observe that “Future research on… changes in the grammatical complexity of metaphor with development is called for.” (p.993) Given that this research paper is 25 years old, I wonder if anyone has taken up that challenge?

I liked the authors’ concept of “an invitation to think metaphorically.” (p.992)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Cathy Dent and Lois Rosenberg (1990) Visual and verbal metaphors: developmental interactions. Child Development 61, 983-994

ABSTRACT: “This study investigated developmental changes in children’s abilities to comprehend visual metaphors as measured by their use of verbal metaphor. The visual metaphors were compound objects, e.g., a top with features of a ballerina (head and skirt). 30 participants at each of 4 ages – 5, 7, 10, and adult – described objects ordered in pairs; half described standard objects and the other half corresponding compound objects (half stationary, and half moving, eg spinning). Total metaphoric descriptions reached the adult frequency by age 7 for compound objects, but increased from 5 to 10 to adult for standard objects. For all but the youngest children, moving objects were more likely to be described using action vehicles. These results indicate that from 5 to 7 children improve in the ability to understand visual metaphors, which display topic-vehicle interaction; from 5 through 10 to adulthood they improve in the ability to comprehend metaphoric similarity.” (p.983)

Reference is to:
Dent 1984a The developmental importance of motion information in perceiving and describing metaphoric similarity. Child Development 55, 1607-1613

Dent & Ledbetter, 1986 Facilitating children’s recall of figurative language in text using films of natural objects and events. Human Development 29, 231-235

Kogan N, Connor K, Gross A, & Fava D 1980 Understanding visual metaphor: developmental and individual differences. Monographs of the society for research in child development 45(1, serial no.183)

Seitz & Beilin, 1987 The development of comprehension of physiognomic metaphor in photographs. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 5, 321-331


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in early years education, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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