Teaching Idioms: How to Teach Idioms
in 4 Steps
Teaching idioms in English is the Key to fully
unlocking the English Language. In this lesson, we will go over 4
steps to effectively teach idioms in the classroom. If
you want your students to sound like native English speakers (and
easily understand them), it is essential that you spend some time
are expressions that cannot be understood by literal translation.
For example, the idiom "break a
literally means to harm a bone in your leg. However,
this idiom is commonly used to wish someone good luck before they
It comes from 16th century England, where "to break
a leg" meant to bow (bend the leg at the knee). Since successful
actors would "break a leg" (bow) onstage and receive applause, the
phrase became a wish for good luck. (As an actor, you wouldn't want
not to receive applause, right?)
There are many many idioms in the English language, and new ones are
created all the time.
Benefits of Teaching English Idioms
- Students will be able to understand native
speakers much better.
- Students will sound more like native speakers
- Students will be able to express their ideas
and communicate more effectively in English.
Follow These 4 Steps to Teach English idioms (Also Known as
1. Choose the right expressions.
Not all English expressions are appropriate for every student or
situation. Consider your students' ages, cultural backgrounds, and
the level of their English
when choosing which idioms to teach. Choose the
most useful expressions for your students' needs.
If you are teaching
, avoid expressions that are too confusing. In
addition, avoid expressions that might be rude or not
age-appropriate. For instance, the phrase "What the hell?" (an angry
form of "What?") would be considered impolite and unprofessional.
If you are teaching business
English, focus on expressions that are commonly used in
professional settings. Next, focus on expressions related to
specific business fields (such as marketing, finance, or human
resources) to help set your students up for success in their
careers. For instance, the phrase "to
think outside the box" (think creatively) is often used
in business contexts.
If you are teaching English for academic purposes, focus on
expressions that are commonly used in academic settings. For
instance, the phrase "on the other
(used to present an opposite statement) is often
used in academic writing.
2. Explain each word in the idiomatic expression, and then explain
the meaning of the expression as a whole.
How do you explain idioms?
Your students will be more likely to remember an expression if they
understand each word in it. In addition, if there is a known
explanation for how the expression came about, share that with your
students. In many cases, this is the most interesting part!
Here is an example using the idiom "bite
the bullet" (to do something difficult):
The words "bite," "the," and "bullet" each have a literal meaning.
= to put your teeth into something.
= a word that specifies which thing we are
= a small, round object that is shot from
"Bite the bullet"
= to do something difficult or
unpleasant, despite feeling fear or hesitation.
It comes from the 1800s, when people often had to have surgery
without anesthesia. To distract themselves from the pain, they would
bite on a bullet.
3. Put the idiomatic expression into context.
Provide context in the form of example sentences or a short
conversation. This will help your students see how the expression is
used in real life.
Then have your students practice using the expression in different
contexts. A few possibilities for this could be role-playing,
writing exercises, or speaking games.
Here is an example using the idiom "to
take something with a grain of salt"
(to not believe
tells you that the company is going to start firing people soon. You
might want to take
this information with
a grain of salt
because it's just a rumor and it hasn't
been confirmed by anyone in a leadership position.
I heard that our
company is going to start firing people soon!
Really? I haven't
heard that. I would take that information with a grain of salt until
we hear something from someone in a leadership position.
4. Encourage your students to use the idiomatic expression in
their own speech and writing.
The best way for your students to learn an expression is to use it
often. Encourage them to use the idioms you have taught in class in
their own speech and writing. In addition, provide opportunities for
them to share their own examples of when they have used the
expression outside of class.
For instance, you could start a discussion by asking your students
to share a time when they have had to "bite the bullet" and do
something difficult. Or you could have them write a short paragraph
using all the expressions on a certain list.
Here is a fun example using the idioms we went over in this
think outside the box |
on the other hand | bite
the bullet | take with a
grain of salt
Write a short passage that includes all the above idiomatic
"Frederick always tries to think outside the box
when he is solving problems at work. On the other hand, his boss
usually wants him to play it safe and follow the
company's rules. So Frederick often has to bite the bullet
and do things the boring way. After months of this, he notices more
and more that thinking outside the box brings him
the best results. So he starts taking his boss'
opinions with a grain of salt. Eventually,
Frederick gets promoted to a position where he can put his creative
problem-solving skills to good use!"
Idioms Teaching: Additional Information, Tips, and Tricks
When should you start teaching idioms?
You can start teaching idioms when your students have enough
vocabulary to be familiar with most of the words that make up the
idioms on your list. In other words, students should already be
familiar with a wide range of vocabulary and have plenty of reading
and speaking practice.
Why is teaching idioms important?
Native English speakers grow up hearing and speaking idioms every
Whether your students are young
it is important that they feel comfortable using these expressions
in their everyday speech and writing
If your students are studying to learn English for a job, they
especially need to know how to understand and use idiomatic
expressions so they can communicate with their co-workers,
supervisors, or customers.
How to teach idioms in a fun way?
1) You can use fun videos and interactive exercises. For example
Idioms Exercises and Videos
2) Another great way is using short
stories for English learners
. Not only will this provide a fun
and engaging way for your students to learn, but it will also allow
them to see how idioms are used in context.
3) Drawing idioms can also be a fun way to teach idioms. Have
students draw a picture of an idiom in its literal meaning, and then
a picture of the idiom's actual meaning. For example, for the idiom
"a piece of cake,"
could draw a slice of cake and then a person who is doing something
4) Charades is another fun way to teach idioms. Students can act out
the meaning of an idiom, and their classmates can try to guess what
the idiom is. Here is an example of the idiom "pulling
: using his hands, the presenting student could
lightly pull the leg of his partner. The other team members would
then try to guess the idiom. Of course, they must also correctly say
the idiom's meaning!
Which idiomatic expressions should you teach?
If you teach everyday English, the best way to decide which
expressions to teach is to listen for them when you are having a
conversation in English, watching American television programs,
listening to English-language videos, podcasts, radio stations, etc.
If you teach business English, academic English, or any other type
of English that has a specific purpose, you should pay attention to
the expressions that are used most often in that field.
If you're regularly exposed to English (as a teacher), then idioms
you rarely hear are likely not worth your student's time and effort
to learn. When will they ever use it? And will they sound natural
For example, let's say you read in a textbook or online about the
old-fashioned idiom "keep your
which means to be prepared for anything that
might happen. It originates from the days when guns were loaded with
a special powder (called gunpowder) in order to shoot. If the powder
became wet, the gun would not work.
Now, this idiom is not used very often in modern English. So unless
you're teaching a history class, then it's probably not worth your
time to teach this idiom to your students. It simply won't be very
useful to them.
On the other hand, there are many idioms that are used frequently in
everyday English conversations. These are the expressions that you
should focus on teaching to your students.
Ask yourself: How often will my students get to hear this idiom?
When will they need to use it in the real world? If they use it in
their speech or writing, how natural will it sound for native
You can also ask your students to bring in examples of expressions
that they find while they are reading, watching television,
listening to the radio, or speaking with co-workers or friends.
If you want your students to be comfortable and feel like native
English speakers, make teaching English idiomatic expressions part
of your lesson plans. This will help your students to sound more
natural when they speak, and it will also give them a better
understanding of the English language.