Think teaching English idioms is too tough?
Hold your horses!
We’re about to let the cat out of the bag—there’s a great trick for making English idiom lessons simple, practical and effective.
English idiomatic expressions, like idiomatic expressions in any language, can be tough to grasp for newcomers to the language. But they’re also really fun to teach and learn! You’ll soon see that teaching English idioms to learners of any level is a piece of cake.
You only need to take three easy steps to teach idioms to any level of ESL learner. However, each level requires three unique steps of its own. Keep reading to find out what they are!
Steps for Teaching English Idioms at Any Level
3 Steps for Teaching English Idioms to Beginners
Some ESL teachers may find that teaching idioms is a waste of time with beginners. They can barely hold their own in a conversation, so why go teaching them confusing expressions that are tough to understand?
There are a few reasons why teaching English idioms to beginners is a good idea.
Firstly, it establishes common ground. All languages have idiomatic expressions, and by going over some in English, they’ll be encouraged to examine their own language usage, that of their native tongue and become more linguistically aware. That’s always a good thing in an ESL classroom.
But perhaps more importantly, learning English idiomatic expressions is fun! Beginners have the biggest hurdle to overcome when they first enter an ESL classroom: Learning to understand and to be understood. And yet we spend a lot of time with beginners going over irregular verbs, memorizing vocabulary and learning basic phrases. Give them—and yourself—a break with a fun, creative lesson on English idiomatic expressions.
When you’re teaching English idioms to beginners, the most important thing to remember is to make it fun. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
1. Choose a Theme
When you’re presenting idiomatic expressions to beginners, it’s a good idea to pick a theme. Try choosing a list of 10 idioms in accordance with something like an upcoming holiday (on Halloween, try “green-eyed monster,” “going on a witch hunt”) or any theme that’s of interest to you and your class. For example, if you’ve just done a lesson on food words, try making a list of food-related idioms (“You’re a peach!” “Easy as pie.”)
If you’re having a hard time coming up with idioms in accordance with your theme, try this site which groups English idioms by theme for you, so you can pick and choose the ones you’d like to use.
2. Engage Students in Discovery
You can just give students a list of idioms and their meanings, but where’s the fun in that?
When introducing beginners to idioms, it can be fun to have them work in pairs or groups to try to discover what the idioms mean. Of course, don’t get them started empty-handed! Create a matching worksheet with the definitions of the idioms on one side and the idioms themselves on the other. Have students work together to decide which idiom means which thing. If necessary, you can use translation in the definitions.
The benefit of introducing idioms in this way is that it gets students thinking about how idioms work and maybe even making comparisons in their own languages.
3. Reinforce Learning with a Game
Once students have figured out which idiom has which meaning, it’s time for a game! A really fun one to play with beginners is Charades. Since the person in front of the class doesn’t have to speak, it can be less scary for students to volunteer. Of course, the guessers will have to guess in English!
Place the idioms you’ve covered into a hat, and have students come up one by one to act them out. Be sure to think ahead if you plan to use this game—you wouldn’t want to pick idioms that are impossible to act out and risk frustrating your students.
3 Steps for Teaching English Idioms to Intermediate Learners
Intermediate learners may have a handle on some idioms, but not all. This is a great time to expand their idiomatic vocabulary with uses that are interesting to them. With many students, this will mean involving pop culture like music. If you choose the song correctly, this can be a great opportunity to introduce more idiomatic expressions!
1. Pick an Appropriate Song
As the teacher, it’s important to do your homework before getting underway with any idiomatic expressions activity. You can’t just assume any song will have idiomatic expressions in it, as well you know!
Here are a few resources to help you find the right song to use with your class:
- Idiomatic Song Titles
- Popular Songs that Include Idioms
- Alphabetical List of Songs with Idioms
- Lady Gaga and Idioms
- Katy Perry and Idioms
- A Unique Idiomatic Song (lots of expressions!)
Of course, if you have another song in mind, go ahead and use that!
2. Warm Up with a Listening Activity
Get students ready to listen closely by using a musical listening activity to get things rolling. You’ll find a lot of suggestions on FluentU for lessons including songs, including but not limited to fill-in-the blank activities and write your own lyrics activities.
Pick something that you know your class will catch onto fairly quickly so that you can get into the meat of the lesson.
3. Discuss the Idioms Found and Introduce More
This is where you’re going to want to actually define the idiomatic expressions in the song.
The best way to do this is by reviewing what an idiomatic expression is with your class and then asking students to identify the expressions themselves. This sort of guided discovery can help students understand the idioms in the song and find their own definitions, which you can verify with them and correct if needed.
Once your students have uncovered all the idioms in the song, you can take the opportunity to talk about musically-themed idiomatic expressions with your class and encourage them to try to use them.
You can add more idioms to the list from some of the resources listed in the beginners’ lesson above. Give students a list of around 10 or 20 to work with, which you can test either by assigning a writing activity, giving quiz a few days later or playing some games, like Charades or even a version of Taboo. In this game, students are allowed to describe the meaning of the idiom, but they can’t use any of the words in the expression. Other students must guess the idiom that’s being described.
Another option with intermediate learners is to use a video activity instead of or following a musical activity. We love the Head Over Heels activity, which is a lot of fun to use if you’re going to be studying idioms over a period of several classes.
3 Steps Teaching English Idioms to Advanced Learners
By the time you’ve got a classroom full of advanced learners, idiomatic expressions have likely already been covered. Many idioms have already been acquired, and yet there’s still a ways to go.
1. Identify a List of English Idioms
First, you’ll need to find some idioms that your advanced learners may not have seen before.
These 66 idioms are ones that are common in spoken English but that likely won’t have been addressed yet in other classes. They’re a bit rarer than some of the others that may have come up in previous classes, and they’re quite varied, meaning that even if some have come up in thematic lessons, others will not have been covered. In other words, you’ll have a fairly good balanced between familiar and novel.
Have students scan the list and discuss the idioms they already recognize.
2. Guide Students Through an Idiomatic Research Project
Either alone or in pairs, ask students to carry out a research project (in English, of course!) on a given idiomatic expression. Dole out the expressions and let each student know that they’ll need to give a 5-10 minute presentation to the class on the expression.
This research project can take several different directions.
It can be interesting to ask advanced learners to find an equivalent of idiomatic expressions that exists in their native tongue and discuss the differences in English. This can work if everyone in your class has the same native tongue or if they don’t. At an advanced level, it’s not necessarily problematic to introduce a few words of the native tongue as a point of comparison.
Of course, if you’d prefer not to introduce other languages into your ESL classroom, you can still ask students to do research on the etymology of certain idiomatic expressions. Guide them towards more extensive dictionaries like the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, if your students have library access, or the Online Etymology Dictionary if they don’t. Make sure you ask for works cited, especially to keep students from wandering over to Wikipedia for the bulk of their research!
3. Back Up Your Students with Extra Material
Take advantage of each student’s presentation of his or her expression, effectively teaching it to the class, to launch in-class discussions of expressions and idioms. Allow for two presentations per class day, splitting them up with a discussion or conversation lasting about 20 minutes. This is the ideal moment to introduce additional information that you’ll have uncovered about the expression, including historical information, that you can find online.
By guiding your students in their discovery of English idioms, you’re sure to renew their interest and excitement in learning the English language!
Keeping the classroom fun is the ideal way to keep your students on their toes.
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