Can drawings facilitate symbolic understanding of figurative language in children?

Melissa L. Allen*, Harriet Butler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
121 Downloads (Pure)


Understanding figurative language develops during middle childhood. Drawing can facilitate recall and may aid other aspects of linguistic expression. We examined whether children provide more symbolic interpretations of figurative statements in drawings relative to verbal explanations, and whether drawing facilitates overall symbolic interpretation. Ninety‐six children were split into three age groups (5–6, 7–8, and 9–10 years) in a between‐subjects design. In the ‘draw‐first’ condition, they were asked to depict then explain figurative statements (e.g., raining like cats and dogs), and in the ‘explain‐first’ condition, children were asked to explain before drawing. We coded for symbolic or literal content. Overall, children provided more symbolic responses for verbal explanations compared to drawings, with a developmental increase. More symbolic responses occurred in the ‘draw‐first’ condition compared to other task by condition combinations, suggesting drawing can facilitate subsequent symbolic verbal explanation. We discuss the links between drawings, figurative language, and development.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Developmental Psychology
Early online date25 Mar 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Mar 2020

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Psychological Approaches for Studying Education
  • SoE Language Literacies and Education Network


  • children
  • drawings
  • figurative language
  • metaphor
  • symbolic


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