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 teaching idioms.

What Are Idioms?

Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms
Idioms are expressions that cannot be understood by literal translation. For example, the idiom "break a leg" literally means to harm a bone in your leg. However, this idiom is commonly used to wish someone good luck before they perform.
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?)
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, origin of the idiom break a leg

There are many many idioms in the English language, and new ones are created all the time.

Benefits of Teaching English Idioms

  1. Students will be able to understand native speakers much better.

  2. Students will sound more like native speakers themselves.

  3. Students will be able to express their ideas and communicate more effectively in English.

Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, students expressing ideas

Follow These 4 Steps to Teach English idioms (Also Known as Idiomatic Expressions):

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 proficiency when choosing which idioms to teach. Choose the most useful expressions for your students' needs.

Some examples:

If you are teaching young children, 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.
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, what?!

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.
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, think outside the box

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 hand" (used to present an opposite statement) is often used in academic writing.
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, on the other hand

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!
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, where do idioms come from

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.

"Bite" = to put your teeth into something.

"The" = a word that specifies which thing we are talking about.

"Bullet" = a small, round object that is shot from a gun.

"Bite the bullet" = to do something difficult or unpleasant, despite feeling fear or hesitation.
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, bite the bullet

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 something completely):

Situation 1: Your colleague 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.

Person A: I heard that our company is going to start firing people soon!

Person B: 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.
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, take it with a grain of salt

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 lesson:

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 expressions.

"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!"
Teaching Idioms, How to Teach Idioms, a short story with idioms

Resources on English Idioms:

- English Idioms

- English Idioms Exercises and Videos

- British English Idioms

- Idiom Examples

- Teaching Idioms: How to Teach Idioms in 4 Steps

- A Guide to Understanding and Using Idiomatic Expressions

- Idioms of "Happy": The Top 10 You Should Know

- 10 Useful Business Idioms in English

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.
students ready to start learning idioms

Why is teaching idioms important?

Native English speakers grow up hearing and speaking idioms every day.

Whether your students are young children or adults, 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.
 Why is teaching idioms important?

How to teach idioms in a fun way?

1) You can use fun videos and interactive exercises. For example here: English 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," they could draw a slice of cake and then a person who is doing something very easily.

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 someone's leg": 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!
 How to teach idioms in a fun way

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 using it?

For example, let's say you read in a textbook or online about the old-fashioned idiom "keep your powder dry," 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 speakers?
How often will my students get to hear this idiom?

Student examples

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.
student examples of idioms

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.

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