It’s easy as pie.
No, it’s a piece of cake.
Or maybe it’s impossible to make heads or tails out of them.
Teaching Idioms Is Teaching Fluency
Colorful language and powerful imagery make idioms a lot of fun for ESL learners. When you throw cats and dogs in a scene where they are falling from the sky, it’s hard to know exactly what a phrase might mean. It’s almost like a code-breaking game, where students must learn that when certain words come together in a phrase, they can mean something very different.
It’s important to not only teach the meaning of idioms, but to also teach how to use them correctly and effectively. When a non-native speaker uses an idiom correctly, he or she will sound very fluent. But, on the other hand, if they bumble the phrase, they will sound the exact opposite.
Learning idioms is appropriate for intermediate to advanced students. If you teach an idiom lesson to beginners or low-intermediate learners, you may well be putting them in the bumbling category mentioned above. Teach idioms wisely and sparingly to ensure your students’ success.
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Tips for Teaching English Idioms Wisely
Provide idioms in context, so students can fully understand the meaning. Be sure to provide a sample conversation around it. For example, take the following dialogue featuring the idiom “to be a chicken” when at a local amusement park.
Jack: Ooh, wow. Look at that roller coaster, Jane! It goes upside-down!
Jane: My stomach aches just looking at it. I will not ride that.
Jack: Ah, come on. Don’t be a chicken!
Teach idioms in spoken form, not written, and explain to students how they are conversational, rather than formal. Have students practice the idioms in dialogue to help them understand they’re used in spoken colloquial English.
Be sure to explain how the individual words have different meanings from the whole idiom phrase. For example, how much does an arm and a leg actually cost? Who knows?
Don’t just hand out a long list of idioms. Be sure to provide a small selection of 5-10 idioms (or less!) and explain each one. If you provide too many examples, it’ll simply turn into an introduction of what an idiom is, rather than how to actually remember the meaning and use one effectively in dialogue.
That brings us to just how important it is to help your students understand idiom usage.
Easy as Pie: Everything You’ve Gotta Know to Teach English Idioms Effectively
4 Exercises to Help Your Students Understand Idioms
1. Teach idioms with pictures
Provide a picture to explain the context. This works best if you show an image that humorously illustrates the literal meaning of the idiom. It will make students laugh, but also help them understand or guess what a phrase means. Idioms are full of colorful imagery, perfect for a flashcard or photo. Show the picture to your students and have them guess the meaning of the idiom.
From there, give examples of when you would use it and how the words and the actual meaning of the idiom are different. Looking for a good resource? Check out this website for an example of great images to explain the meaning of idioms. And for some beautiful images depicting idioms, be sure to check out this site.
2. Use small groups to present dialogues
Break your class into small groups and have each group look up two idioms. Dave’s ESL Cafe has a great collection of idioms and their meanings for student reference.
Before they look them up, have the students make an educated guess on what the idiom means, and then let them search for the real meaning. Have students explain the meaning to the rest of the class and use the idiom in a short sample dialogue.
3. Introduce Amelia Bedelia
No, Amelia! You don’t actually throw the tent into the woods!
You don’t have to be a kid to adore Amelia Bedelia and her literal mind. She’s the perfect teacher for an idiom lesson. Visit the publisher’s website for activities, book excerpts, worksheets and games. While the material is oriented for children, it’s also a great way for older students to learn English idioms through a fun and quirky character!
4. Use a theme
A great way to teach idioms is to use a theme. For example, you could use all weather-related idioms (see this great worksheet!). Or teach sports-related idioms with this helpful worksheet. By using a common theme to teach idioms, it’s easier for students to grasp the meanings of the phrases, and see how similar words can mean very different things.
10 ESL Idioms Worth Repeating
As you can see, there are hundreds of great resources for teaching idioms. Where should you even start? Remember, it’s important to provide context around your idioms.
So to get you started, we’ve listed a few of our favorites with a sample dialogue and some helpful teaching tips.
1. (to be) A fish out of water
Meaning: to feel awkward or uncomfortable, usually in a new situation
Teaching tips: Start the lesson by talking to your students about feeling awkward. What makes them feel awkward? Give an example of what makes you feel awkward. Then, present the below dialogue.
Sam: Gee, learning to rollerblade isn’t easy. I keep falling down!
Sarah: I know, it’s so hard! I feel like a fish out of water.
2. To be broke
Meaning: to be out of money, to have no money
Teaching tips: Provide the students with two images. One image should be of a broken item (such as a broken pencil) and one should be an image of a person with no money (this is a great one). Explain how both images mean “to be broke.” Then, present the following dialogue and have the students match the correct image to the meaning of the idiom.
Sam: I really want to buy that cool hat. But I’m completely broke.
Sarah: Would you like to borrow some money?
Sam: That’d be great. I promise, I’ll pay you back later.
3. Rule of thumb
Meaning: an unwritten but generally accepted guideline, policy or method of doing something
Teaching tips: Talk with your students about laws of society. Which ones are actual legal laws? Which ones are social norms or generally accepted rules? Make a list of each. Then, introduce the “rule of thumb” idiom. Practice with the below dialogue.
Sam: These potato chips are so delicious. Want some?
Sarah: Sure, thanks.
Sam: Ooh, sorry! I dropped that handful. Well, it’s the 5-second rule. They were on the ground less than 5 seconds, so it’s still okay to eat them.
Sarah: What? Yuck. That doesn’t sound like a good rule of thumb. Give me some that haven’t dropped on the ground, please!
4. (to be) Up in the air
Meaning: undecided or indefinite, usually because often because other matters should be decided first
Teaching tips: Present this image, featuring the idiom “up in the air.” Talk to the students about what it means, and then present the following dialogue. Afterward, talk about what your students are currently up in the air about. Then, have them come up with their own sample dialogue.
Sarah: Hey, Sam! Remember, you need to let us know by tomorrow if you’re going to go on the class trip with us.
Sam: That’s right. I’m still up in the air. I need to figure out my work schedule first and see if they’ll let me have a few days off work.
Sarah: I see. Well, let us know. I hope you can come!
5. (to be the) Devil’s advocate
Meaning: to present a counter argument
Teaching tips: After explaining the meaning of this idiom and practicing the following dialogue, present the class with a debate exercise. Split the class into two groups, and have each side come up with a different argument to the same issue. (Choose an issue you think might be relevant to your students). Have them debate the issue, using the idiom when appropriate.
Sam: I just can’t understand why healthcare is so expensive in the United States. It just doesn’t seem right.
Sarah: Tell me about it. But, to be the devil’s advocate, doctors get paid more in the US than any other country. And so that attracts the best doctors in the world who possibly provide some of the best care in the world.
Sam: Well, maybe. But it still shouldn’t be so expensive.
6. (to) Give someone the cold shoulder
Meaning: to no interest in someone or something, to ignore
Teaching tips: Provide the sample image and have the students guess what they think the idiom means. Ask the students if they’ve ever given someone the cold shoulder. Or, if they’ve ever received the cold shoulder. Practice below dialogue.
Sarah: I ran into Sallie yesterday and we had a nice conversation at the coffee shop, catching up with each other.
Sam: Oh, really? Last time I saw her, she gave me the cold shoulder. I couldn’t figure out what I had done to make her angry.
Sarah: Well, it probably doesn’t help that you are dating her best friend.
7. Happy camper
Meaning: a person who is happy and cheerful
Teaching tips: Explain the idiom and practice the sample dialogue. Ask your students what makes them happy. Also, practice using the idiom in the negative. Such as, “I’m not a happy camper today.”
Sam: Sarah, why are you so happy today?
Sarah: Well, I made a perfect score on my English test. I also won first prize in an English writing contest and received a $100 prize. So yes, I’m a happy camper today.
Sam: Wow, congratulations!
8. (to) Sit tight
Meaning: to stay where you are
Teaching tips: Explain the definition of the idiom and practice the dialogue below. Have the students come up with scenarios where they could use this idiom in context.
Sarah: Sam, are you okay? What happened?!
Sam: I fell down the stairs and now my leg really hurts.
Sarah: Sit tight! I’ll go call 9-1-1.
9. (to be) Head over heels (in love)
Meaning: to be really or completely in love with someone
Teaching tips: Show this image explaining the idiom. Talk to the students about being in love. Ask which students are currently in love (guaranteed to elicit a few giggles from your students!). Practice the below dialogue.
Sarah: Sam, what are you writing?
Sam: I’m writing a letter to my new girlfriend.
Sarah: Ooh, really? You just wrote to her yesterday. You must be head over heels!
Sam: I really am. I want to marry her.
10. (to) Get the ball rolling
Meaning: to get started
Teaching tips: Write the idiom on the board in front of class. Have the students make guesses on what it means. Then, practice the below dialogue and have them guess again.
Sam: Have you started the English class project yet?
Sarah: No, not yet. I need to ask the teacher a few more questions first.
Sam: You better get the ball rolling! The project is due next week!
Sarah: Don’t worry about me. I’ll get it done.
Now, get your idiom ball rolling. And don’t beat around the bush!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these fun idioms, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.