Standard Lesson

Stairway to Heaven: Examining Metaphor in Popular Music

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Two 50-minute sessions
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Students review the definition of metaphor, then examine the lyrics to Robert Plant's "Stairway to Heaven," or another song, to find examples of metaphor. After discussing the metaphors they found, students search through their own music collections for additional examples. Finally, students use an online graffiti tool to explore the significance of metaphor in song lyrics they have chosen by creating a multimodal analysis of a selected part of the lyrics.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Does nonprint media-television shows, films, and songs-belong in the classroom? Absolutely! Nonprint media reach students and make connections in different ways from print media. Further, nonprint media often focus on contemporary topics that are not yet included in classroom textbooks. Jerome Evans states, "Artifacts of pop culture serve as advanced organizers for students, who can then connect new material (prominent and persistent themes in American literature) to their own experiences with literature (song lyrics). Once they see that songwriters and performers develop themes in the music they enjoy, discovering those themes (and, of course, others) in literature new to them is simply not so difficult." As Evans discusses, the use of nonprint media aids students when they do need to read and respond to print media.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).



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Student Objectives

Students will

  • find examples of metaphor in the lyrics of a song.

  • interpret the meaning of the metaphors they find.

  • create images that depict the metaphors found in song lyrics.

Session One

  1. Review the definition of metaphor with the class. Take a few moments to review or explain the difference between metaphor and simile.

  2. Ask small groups of students to brainstorm examples of metaphor and list them on the board.

  3. Have each group briefly explain the metaphor for the whole class. (If any of the students’ examples are actually simile, clarify the two literary elements for the class.)

  4. Next, share the lyrics to Robert Plant’s “Stairway to Heaven” or another song with metaphor. Ask students to read the lyrics in small groups and then look for examples of metaphor. Students should be able to identify the phrase “stairway to heaven” as a metaphor.

  5. Lead a discussion with the following questions:

    • What does the lyric/title “stairway to heaven” mean? What idea or object does it denote?

    • Why does the lyricist use the phrase “buying a stairway to heaven”?

    • What are some other phrases the lyricist could have used instead of the metaphor “stairway to heaven”?

    • How would using another phrase change the song?

    • What other metaphors can you find in the lyrics? (e.g., “two paths,” “the road you’re on,” “wind on down the road”)
  6. For homework, ask students to find examples of metaphor in the lyrics of songs they enjoy at home. Have students refer to the Definition of Metaphor as they work.

    • Share the Songfacts and/or Lyrics Freak Websites with students to access at home, or provide students with additional time for research in the computer lab or on a classroom computer. Note that the sites might contain explicit lyrics and that students should be supervised while accessing them.

    • Students might also be able to find lyrics on their own CD case inserts or may be able to recite lyrics from memory. (Although this may be less reliable, because lyrics are often not heard correctly.)
  7. Tell students they will select one song and should print or write the selected song’s lyrics for the following day’s activity. Teachers may wish to caution students against sharing explicit lyrics and should provide students with guidelines for “keeping the lyrics clean” for this activity. As a precaution, lyrics can be screened before they are shared with other students. Since most of the songs used to model in this lesson are from the 1980s and 1990s, the students here can “teach the teacher” about the kind of music they like to listen to.

Session Two

  1. Before students begin their Literary Graffiti projects, check to see that they have selected a song with metaphor in the lyrics. Students who have not completed the homework assignment correctly may need additional research time before continuing. Provide enough time between session one and session two for students to make any necessary corrections before continuing with the Literary Graffiti Tool; or allow time for students to find time during this session if necessary.

  2. Share the rubric with the students so they know the expectations for the project.

  3. Have students access the Literary Graffiti Tool in the computer lab or classroom computer. If you do not have enough computers for individual students, have them work in pairs or take turns on the available computers.

  4. Demonstrate how to use the tool, using “Stairway to Heaven” as an example. Students should:

    • Write the song title in the Title of Your Text space on the first screen.

    • Write their name (and a partner if appropriate) in the next space, and then select black/white or color printer. Then move to the main screen.

    • In the Summary of the Text space, have students write the text from the lyrics that is a metaphor. For example, they would write “buying a stairway to heaven.”

    • In the Literary Graffiti space on the left, have students draw a picture that illustrates what the metaphor stands for. For “stairway to heaven”, for example, they might draw the image of a person trying to ascend to heaven on a ladder of money or gold, but unable to reach to the top.

    • In the Explanation of Graffiti space, have students write a brief description of the image they’ve drawn.

    • Finally, in the Significance of Graffiti to Text space, students should explain the metaphor. In the case of “stairway to heaven,” they might write that it is a metaphor for trying to earn one’s importance in life (or a place in Heaven) by amassing wealth and material things, rather than living a good life.
  5. Have students print out their Literary Graffiti pictures and share them with the rest of the class. If any of the students have selected the same song and metaphor, have the group compare their responses. How were they similar and different?


  • Complete the ReadWriteThink lesson Writing about Writing: An Extended Metaphor Assignment.

  • Have students examine additional lyrics for symbolism, simile, allusion, and other literary devices.

  • Invite students to write their own song lyrics using metaphor.

  • Have students rewrite a song that uses metaphor by replacing the metaphor with literal phrases. Ask them to compare the original with their version. Then discuss some of the ways song lyrics are like poetry and make use of poetic devices, such as metaphor, simile, symbolism, and more.

  • Students can use the CD/DVD Cover Creator to design and print CD covers that illustrate their work as well as liner notes that explain the lyrics.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Observe students and monitor their progress as they work in groups.

  • Use the Metaphor Project Rubric to assess students’ Literary Graffiti projects. Share your comments with students by writing them on the rubric.

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