Thursday, August 8, 2013

Teaching ESL: Four Tips on Explaining Idioms

by Shelley Ann Vernon

Here are four tips on teaching and explaining idioms.

1. What is an idiom?

To explain idioms start by explaining the word idiom. An idiom is a group of words that together mean something different than the individual words. This is confusing to the ESL student.

For example someone with a chip on their shoulder has nothing to do with fried potatoes, wood chips or a damaged shoulder.

2. Context is king

Since the individual words in an idiom provide no clue to its meaning always use idioms in a context when explaining them.

For example: He always had a chip on his shoulder because his education was inferior to everyone else around him. That sentence gives students a clue to work out the meaning of the idiomatic phrase.

Another example: Daniel was in hospital for two years before he finally kicked the bucket. It was a relief to his children to attend his funeral since they knew at last their father was no longer suffering.

3. Get a good dictionary

When learning idioms a basic dictionary will be of no use since it will only explain the literal meaning of each word which is useless when it comes to idioms. A good dictionary will have the origin of the idiom which may help to explain how it came to take on its idiomatic meaning.

For example the idiom 'apple of my eye' originally meant the central aperture of the eye and it came to mean 'loved, cherished above others'. Knowing the root as it were of the idiom may help some students remember the idiom more easily. The central aperture is highly valuable, it allows us to see and we cherish it.

Bookish folk will be interested in origins though one can get bogged down in obscure literary references as researchers discuss the first recorded instances of an idiom. The website "" is helpful for an academic approach to idioms.

4. Teach idioms with games to help your students remember them

Teaching idioms idea 1

Explain six idioms in context either through examples in a poem or novel, or by describing them yourself. For each idiom draw an object that represents it on the board, for example an eye for "apple of your eye" or a question mark for "doubting Thomas".

After explaining the six idioms act one of them out to the class and have your students call out the idiom you are acting. If you are too shy to act pick a feisty student to come up front and do it for you.

Using this method you bring your idioms alive, it's not just a list on a page. Students learn the idiom in context, they have a visual of it with the drawing, they repeat it several times in context with the acting and they even have a feel for it by acting it out.

Teaching idioms idea 2

In a different lesson take six more idioms and teach them using mime. Introduce the idiom in context as before. Make up a sign or gesture for each one.

Use your idioms in context again with the whole class making the gesture defined. Now say just the idioms without all the context and students continue to make the relevant gestures.

Jump back and forth in no specific order through your six new idioms getting faster and faster and repeating ones you see students have trouble with more often. Repetition is the mother of skill.

Before moving on to a different topic or game revise the idioms you covered in the previous lesson either by drawing the pictures you used, or with acting.

Teaching idioms idea 3

Make up a fun conversation using all the idioms! Let students work on this in small groups or in pairs, each one taking lines in the conversation and performing to the class. You'll have to give some examples beforehand of course, such as:

"You are the apple of my eye, I really love you babe".
"Pull the other leg. You say that to all the girls."
"Don't be a doubting Thomas, it's true my darling."
"Pigs might fly."
"I give up. You have a chip on your shoulder and it's pretty annoying. I don't know why you feel so inferior."

Teaching idioms idea 4

Play Call My Bluff with idioms (taken with permission from ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults)

Category: Writing, Reading - From simple vocabulary definitions to enriching knowledge of English through idioms, metaphors and sayings.
Level: Beginner to Advanced
Group size: Any class size
Preparation: Students prepare definitions for homework

Vocabulary version

Students prepare three definitions of a word that they look up in the dictionary, two true and one fake. The class listen to the definitions and decide which the true one is.

Once students have heard all three definitions have the students all stand at their desks and listen as the definitions are read out again and this time the students sit down if they think a definition is false and stand if they think it true.

You can then easily see who has it correct and you can tell those students to award themselves a point if correct. Ideally you can give the preparation task as homework so as not to use class time for the research.

Note you may also do two fake answers and one true one for variety, and this is best with beginners too.

Version with idioms or metaphors for advanced students

Students choose an idiom or metaphor and give three definitions of the meaning, two fake and one true. This is an enriching exercise.

You have the option of distributing these out to the students, one or two per student, and letting them research the meaning for homework or giving students a free rein to find their own metaphor or expression.

For example the idiom "to kick the bucket" means:
a) to be seriously mad at someone
b) the name of a sport played on small British islands where balls get lost too easily in the sea
c) to die

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