4 Tips for Teaching English Idiomatic Expressions to ESL Students

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Teaching English language idioms is no piece of cake.

These non-literal expressions are often confusing for ESL students and can be challenging for teachers to explain. “Raining cats and dogs” sounds like a terrifying weather phenomenon, while being “under the weather,” surprisingly, does not mean you need an umbrella.

Native English speakers use idioms as second nature, but these phrases aren’t always part of standard textbook fodder for ESL learners.  When a student can fluidly and accurately use an idiom in conversation, though, it’s a rewarding feeling—they’re well on their way to fluency! Check out these tips for teaching idiomatic expressions to English learners.

Many English idioms and phrases involve body parts, which we covered previously here. 

Clarify Word Meaning

Before diving into the hidden meaning of an idiomatic expression, make sure the student understands the words within the phrase individually. Try not to introduce idioms that include new or difficult vocabulary, as this just adds complexity to an already difficult concept. Start simple, taking into account the vocab words your students know well.

Group Idioms Into Themes

When teaching idioms, avoid going through a laundry list of expressions and their definitions. Students won’t be able to understand, remember, and use these phrases if they’re overwhelmed. 

Instead, teach just a handful of idioms at one time, and consider grouping them into relevant themes. For example, teach weather-related idioms together. Or, create a lesson around phrases with animals, like “the cat’s out of the bag” and “the elephant in the room.” Categorizing complex expressions will help students remember their meanings and infuse some fun into what can often be a frustrating subject matter.

Use Visuals and interactive Activities

As a teacher, you likely already know the value of using visual aids in demonstrating complicated concepts. Idioms are no exception, and even your more advanced students will appreciate pictures and props to help convey meaning. 

A little humor always helps, too—make your students laugh by drawing out a literal interpretation of a silly phrase. For example, illustrating the idiom “when pigs fly” is bound to elicit a smile and more than likely a deeper level of understanding.

Provide Context

Rather than teaching idioms and their meanings in isolation, include contextual cues so students can learn how to use them in real life. For instance, to give context to the phrase “kill two birds with one stone,” share how someone might use it in conversation:

Kate: How was your trip to the mall?

Joe: Great! I bought a new shirt and found a gift for my friend.

Kate: Oh, good! It sounds like you were able to kill two birds with one stone.

Injecting the idiom into a dialogue can help students understand when and how to use it properly. Pair up students and ask them to practice using idioms in real conversation. Then have the pairs present the idiom and its meaning. For a more interactive activity, ask your students create a scene using the idiom and act out their lines.

Conclusion

No matter your teaching strategy, make the learning process fun! Idioms are tricky, obscure, and often nonsensical—but they’re also a unique and amusing part of the English language. Following these teaching tips might help your ESL students learn faster and enjoy the road to fluency just a little bit more.  

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