The TEFL Life: A TEFL blog

a story about bad grammar and non-existent punctuation and my TEFL adventures

Teaching idioms: a piece of cake

Learning idiomatic language must be so challenging for our students. How on earth is anyone supposed to know that killing two birds with one stone doesn’t involve birds, stones or killing, or that to tell someone to break a leg is a positive thing rather than a wish for their pain, not to mention that  fat chance and a slim chance mean the same thing?

So, the question remains, what can we do to make idioms and idiomatic language easier for our students to learn?

I must admit, one of my biggest gripes is when teachers (or teaching materials) insist on teaching the most arbitrary and useless phrases. I mean seriously, how often do you actually say that it’s raining cats and dogs*?

But this is not about that. This is not about choosing the what to teach (more on that here) but rather on the how to teach.

So we know that teaching language should take place in context, and with idiomatic language it’s no different. Research has shown that contextual information enhances the comprehension of idioms and idiomatic language (Nippold & Martin, 1989) and that a lack of context makes interpreting idioms a lot harder (Brown, 2001) – and retaining them too, I assume.

Which brings us to my first tip:

Teach idioms in a story or conversation.

Of course, make sure that the context is not overloaded with idioms as this will make the task of identifying, comprehending and remembering the items almost impossible. Our students may be good but they’re not superhuman!

Then, another interesting point is that discussion with classmates has been shown to provide useful opportunities to obtain knowledge to unpack idiomatic language (Freeman & Freeman, 1994). So even the most concise explanation from you may not be as good as letting your students try make sense of it amongst themselves.

Tip #2:

Use group work to let your students figure out the meanings for themselves.

So far, what you have done is present the target language and the students have noticed the language and focussed on meaning. What remains is practice in order to help your students learn to use these phrases appropriately and naturally.

This can be done by setting up a game or activity which forces the use of the idioms in a context that mirrors real usage. In other words, think of ways or situations you would use the target language and use that as a structure for an activity for your students.

Be careful, though: conversation questions are often used as a practice activity, but remember that the target language needs to be used by the students so they cannot be used in the questions.

For example, What was the last time you did something that was a piece of cake? will probably result in the answer Yesterday, and even on embellishment won’t produce the idiom. A more appropriate question would be How did you find the English test last week? 

Some activities which work really well in this context are dialogues, role-plays and stories, all invented by your students.

Tip #3:

Provide a real situation for your students to practise using the language naturally.

There you have it. Three little tips for teaching idioms and idiomatic language.

And one last thing before I go: a very useful site with stories and dialogues incorporating idioms for use in class – just to make your life a little bit easier  🙂


* This might be a cultural thing. Don’t bite my head off if it is.

  • Brown, H. D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language   pedagogy. New York: Longman.
  • Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (1994). Between worlds: Access to second language acquisition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Nippold, M. A., & Martin, S. T. (1989). Idiom interpretation in isolation versus context: A developmental study with adolescents. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 32, 59-66.

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This entry was posted on June 3, 2016 by in activities, advice, General TEFL, language and tagged , , , , , , , .
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