How to Teach English Idioms and Their Meaning

How to Teach English Idioms and Their Meaning

Should we or shouldn’t we teach English idioms to ESL students? Although it is uncommon for ESL students to use them comfortably and effectively, if we choose to not teach them idioms, they’ll be missing an important cultural element of the language they strive to speak fluently. However, it stands to reason that idioms should be taught to upper-intermediate or advanced students, individuals who are ready to take their English fluency to the next level.

To make sure that the time you spend teaching idioms is not time wasted, follow these steps and instructions:

How To Proceed

  1. 1

    Choose 5 to 8 idioms that may be easily grouped

    Most idioms fall into simple categories, like idioms with animals or parts of the body. Choose 5 to 8 from any category, for example idioms with time. If you choose more than 10, you’ll only succeed in overwhelming your students, and they won’t remember any of the idioms they saw in class. So, to teach idioms with time, you may teach the 8 idioms found in this worksheet called Time Flies When You’re Having Fun. Before presenting the idioms, make sure students understand that they are usually used in spoken English, and rarely in written form, with some exceptions (they are widely used on the Internet, in blogs, ezine articles, etc...but students must understand that their use is informal).

  2. 2

    Introduce idioms in context, never in isolation

    Some ESL teachers simply go over a list of English idioms and their definitions or explanations. However, to ensure that students not only understand them, but also learn to use them, present idiom examples in context, for example, in simple conversations where the meaning of the idiom is clear. To introduce the idiom to give someone a hard time, present a conversation like this one:

    - Juan: Hey Sarah, you look sad. What’s up?
    - Sarah: Well, I didn’t play very well today during volleyball practice, and my teammates were not very understanding. They said I was clumsy and had to focus more on the game. They said a 5-year old girl played better than me.
    - Juan: Oh! I’m so sorry they gave you such a hard time.

    Ask students to guess or figure out the meaning of the idiom. Correct as necessary. Ask them to provide other examples of what it means to give someone a hard time. Then, move on to another conversation for another idiom.

  3. 3

    Students create conversations using idioms

    Remember that the goal is to get students to not only understand idioms, but also learn how to use them effectively. Divide the class into pairs. Each pair of students gets one or two idioms to work with. They must write a conversation and use this idiom in it. Walk around the classroom to assist students and check for accuracy.

  4. 4

    Students act out their conversations

    Each pair stands before their classmates and acts out the conversation they wrote. This way they not only practice using the idiom phrases, they hear other examples from classmates, other ways in which these idioms may be included in conversation.

  5. 5

    Practice with games and activities

    The worksheet for Time Flies When You’re Having Fun provides a matching game and a gap-filling exercise. There are plenty more worksheets like these at's Idioms worksheets section.

  6. 6

    Use real life, authentic material

    Show students how some of these idioms are used in the media, in newspaper and magazine articles, and in songs, cartoons, videos, advertisements, etc…Thanks to the Internet, all you have to do is Google an idiom, and you’ll find plenty of sources! If you Google, “gave him a hard time”, you'll run across a Daily Mail article that states voters gave a British politician a hard time. You don't have to read the entire article, just the headline and the basics will do for students to see how this idiom is used in a newspaper headline.

Just remember to keep it real. Your students need to know that there are real people out there who actually speak like this, and say these things. Soon enough, they may feel ready to start using some of these themselves.

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