Connotation, imagery and symbol

What it is

Words and images can signify more than what they denote, extending us beyond their literal everyday meanings to understand and experience one thing in terms of another.  This extension of meaning may, through connotation, evoke associated feelings or, through imagery and symbol, lay down new traces of images, sounds, senses and ideas. 

These additional layers of meaning can operate in various ways

  • graphic representations such as logos and universal symbols stand for specific things, groups and ideas.
  • colour and colour imagery may symbolise feelings and mood, according to cultural convention.
  • Words, sounds and images connote different meanings according to cultural and personal experience.
  • new meanings are made by the placement of one image next to another, such as  juxtaposition in film editing. For example, a woman looking upwards followed by a shot of a bird in flight suggests a longing for freedom. 
  • metaphors create a new meanings by fusing two different – at times dissonant - things or ideas.  This fusion may be explicit statement that one thing is another or expressed implicitly through the choice of language pertaining to the other, eg You are the sun in my life…your shining personality…’thy eternal summer shall not fade’
  • conceptual metaphors are indicative of ways of thinking.  Here, one aspect of our world is seen in terms of another such as life being a journey with smooth or difficult paths, point of arrival, new directions and a final destination. 
  • sustained images run as a thread of meaning in a text, guiding interpretation, and indicate thematic elements.

Why it is important

Connotation, imagery and symbol enrich a text by making words and images mean more than one thing. They invite students to consider the habitual in terms of the new and so are important to creative and critical thought. Figurative language has social consequences as it influences the ways we conceptualise people, information and ideas. Critical analysis brings to light these associations and strands of meaning. For example, in the slogan ‘Stop the boats’, the metonymy in ‘boats’ refers to refugees but removes humanity from the issue. Connotation, imagery and symbol are often culturally specific and may require explicit teaching to include all students. 


Stage 6

Students understand that figurative language accesses different ways of thinking and feeling.

They learn that

  • figurative language gives access to abstract ideas by inviting us to understand one thing in terms of another
  • when figurative language becomes ubiquitous its effect is clichéd
  • figurative language creates a network of meanings and associations
  • figurative language is pervasive in everyday life reflecting cultural assumptions about common activities
  • inventiveness in figurative language depends on the distance between objects of comparison, making the familiar strange*
  • figurative language may privilege particular groups, attitudes and experiences*.

Stage 5

Students understand that attention to imagery can give rise to subtle and complex meanings.

Students learn that

  • The emphasis on imagery in a text varies according to its audience and purpose
  • Understanding the effect of imagery and symbol varies according to personal experience, social and cultural context
  • Attention to patterns of imagery invite readings that are more cohesive.

Stage 4

Students understand that the effect of imagery is subjective.

Students learn that

  • imagery and symbol communicate through associations which may be personal, social or cultural
  • words invite associations (connotations) in responders which bring related ideas and feelings to a text
  • figurative language can invite participation creating emotional resonances or potentially exclude and challenge.

Stage 3

Students understand that richer meanings are produced when responders recognise and engage with imagery.

They learn that

  • imagery prompts evocative comparisons which may add new meanings to a text
  • figurative language extends the meanings of words
  • figurative language compresses ideas through the connections it makes
  • figurative language can persuade, inform and engage audiences emotionally in different modes and media. 

Stage 2

Students understand that imagery is one way of connecting with an audience.

They learn that

  • figurative language has an effect on meaning
  • imagery may be expressed through comparisons
  • there are different types of figurative language in different types of texts and media and for different audiences and purposes

Stage 1

Students understand that language can appeal to the senses.

Students learn to

  • use simple figurative language and word play 
  • recognise some cultural symbols.


Students understand that language can represent more than the literal.

Students learn that

  • words, signs and symbols can represent or suggest things
  • when used imaginatively can be enjoyable.