Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences


Metaphor is seen to pervade all language and communication (see Littlemore, 2001a), being our primary means of conceptualising abstract and complex phenomena into more concrete and easier-to-understand terms. Native speakers use metaphor automatically and without effort, often without noticing (Chilton & Lakoff, 1989, Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, Lakoff, 1993), which leaves second language learners at risk of misunderstandings (e.g. Littlemore, 2001b, 2004b, 2005; Littlemore & Low, 2006a, 2006b, Low & Littlemore, 2009).

Metaphor is recognised as having an unambiguous importance in language learning notwithstanding the general lack of research in the TESOL field (e.g., Cameron & Low, 1999a, 1999b). Research has presented evidence that non-native English speaking students participating in academic lectures in English have difficulties comprehending metaphor (e.g., Littlemore, 2001b, 2004b, 2005; Littlemore & Low, 2006a, 2006b, Low & Littlemore, 2009). Further, in a discipline context, Boers (2000b) argues that metaphor understanding; that is, what is left for the reader/listener to infer, is often exploited in economics and business for persuasive purposes. Therefore, metaphors have the potential to be a major contributor to the comprehension difficulties experienced by non-native English speaking students. However, these specialised fields still remain under researched in regard to metaphor and the challenges presented to nonnative speaking students.

This study sheds light on the difficulties experienced by university students in the comprehension of metaphor in academic reading in a discipline specific context with a view to ultimately identify the comprehension strategies drawn on by such students to comprehend metaphor. In order to gain insights into the problems encountered by L2 university students, a mixed methods approach was adopted. The study comprised of several phases where three texts typical of the discipline, Business Administration, were analysed in order to identify the variety of metaphorical expressions. 24 university students were asked to read the texts and underline those parts of the texts, which caused reading comprehension difficulties. A variation on the think-aloud and stimulated recall methods were employed by conducting individual interviews in order to identify if the problems encountered were metaphor-related or not metaphor-related. In addition to identifying problems, the interviews pinpointed the strategies used in comprehending those metaphors that were problematic. The data was analysed in terms of the frequency of comprehension problems associated with particular types of metaphor with a view in identifying what specifically caused the problems. In addition, an inventory of metaphor comprehension strategies was developed. The theoretical underpinnings of this study draw on a combination of the Cognitive Metaphor Theory and the Interactive Theory of second language reading.

The outcomes from the study contribute to a better understanding L2 reading and expand the knowledge of metaphor in L2 reading comprehension for both learning and teaching purposes within the academic contexts.