English Idioms Every ESL Student Should Know

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The term “idiom” relates to a word or phrase that means something different from its literal meaning. English idioms make the speech flow more naturally and bring it closer to the level of a native speaker.

Therefore, idioms should be an integral part of any ESL program. In this article, we are going to share some popular idioms examples for students broken down into categories. So apart from fun ESL activities, you can use these to liven up your ESL lesson plan

See these examples for some of the coolest ESL activities.

Fun ESL Idioms About Color

Out of the blue

Suddenly. Example: Out of the blue, a car appeared on the road.

To feel blue

Be sad. Example: I’m feeling blue today, so I won’t go to the party.

Black and blue

Covered in bruises. Example: Terry is always black and blue after his boxing training.

White collar worker

Office worker. Example: Mandy was tired of being a white collar worker, so she left her job and went to Bali.

Golden rule

Main rule, rule number 1. Example: Never being late to work is a golden rule of our company.

Catch someone red-handed

To catch someone during crime commitment or doing something wrong. Example: The guard caught the thief red-handed when he was trying to steal an iPhone.

Food and Drinks ESL Idiom Examples

Piece of cake

Something very easy to do. Example: Can you translate this small test? – Yes, that’s a piece of cake for me.

Apple of one’s eye

Someone who is very important to a person. Example: My son is the apple of my eye.

Not my cup of tea

I’m not interested in it. Example: Let’s go to the party tonight! – No, I’d better stay at home, that’s not my cup of tea.

Bread and butter

A vital component of something, a job that provides one with a steady income. Example: Sometimes I work as an interpreter at conferences, but teaching English to foreign students is my bread and butter.

Cool as a cucumber

Very relaxed. Example: I may seem to be cool as a cucumber, but actually I’m very nervous now.

Idioms ESL About Weather

Save up for a rainy day

Save money until some emergency case when it is needed. Example: We will never know what happens tomorrow, so it’s better to save some money for a rainy day.

Come rain or shine

Do it no matter what happens. Example: He is always there for her, come rain or shine.

Over the moon

Extremely happy. Example: Sally was over the moon after she got a proposal from Mike.

Under the weather

To feel not very good. Example: I’m a bit under the weather today, so I’ll call in sick.

A storm in a teacup

A small problem made big. Example: All this panic was just a storm in a teacup.

Animal Idioms for ESL

As busy as a bee

Extremely busy. Example: It’s useless to ask her out – she’s always as busy as a bee.

Eagle eye

With an excellent vision or watching very closely. Example: The teacher goes over the tests with an eagle eye.

A bull in a china shop

A very clumsy person. Example: Tom… Always ruining everything. He’s like a bull in a china shop.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Meaning: Someone or something dangerous pretending to be innocent. Example: I never trust strangers because they can appear to be wolves in sheep’s clothing

Cat nap

A short sleep. Example: I had a cat nap during the meeting at work, but no one noticed that.

Copycat

A person who does the same thing as someone else. Example: They look so alike, but they are not sisters. They may be copycatting each other.

English Idioms About Time

To kill time

To do something to entertain yourself while waiting for something or someone. Example: How do you kill time when you have no more tasks to do?

Time flies

Time passes very quickly. Example: The kids have grown up so quickly. Time flies!

Around the clock

24 hours a day. Example: Our customer support works around the clock, so you can submit your request at any time.

Better late than never

It is better to do something late than not do it at all. Example: I’ve got my parcel after two months. Better late than never!

Like clockwork

At regular intervals. Example: I wake up every day at the same time, like clockwork.

Long time no see

I haven’t seen this person for a long time. Example: Hey Mike! Is that really you? Long time to see!

We hope that our list will help your students learn idioms in a quick and fun way.


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32 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the list! Some of the examples are unusual usage of the terms, but could work :).

    A suggestion… in American English, it would be: “Long time NO see” (not “to see”).

    Also, this example for “A bull in a china shop” is not a correct English language sentence:
    “Tom always ruing everything.”

    • Right! I get the implied parallel, however this statement would refer to the end result of Tom being a bull in a China shop. It seems as if this is something that one would actually have to see in action and then label as such because it could be a bit much to try to accurately verbalize.

      I will give it a try based on a real instance:

      ” I have a preschool student who is larger than all of the kids in my room and very disproportionate to the classroom scale size. So anytime there things like artwork precariously laying around, or unstable toys and fixtures that promise durability, I usually have to modify positions or give her alternate activities, as although she is a sweet child, she is like a bull in a China shop…always seeming to breeze through unaware of her own size and strength, knocking over and into EVERYTHING and unintentionally destroying all things in her path.”

  2. I think an important edit to this article would be to suggest that teaching idioms be reserved for more advanced language learners. Trying to teach idioms to a student learning basic vocabulary would be very confusing, and should be avoided.

      • Wow!!! I love the content. I have seen also minimal mistakes as others have noticed. I alao enjoyed reading abive comments. I am not expert but everyone has point to their protest. But i believe teaching idioms is for higher level of thinking skills. The editor has good intention but must be done carefully maybe by giving some references such as books whose authors are recognized in the related field. If we are going add idioms to our lesson plans, we should use what is appropriate for our learners. Thank you.

  3. Here are a few more: looking forward, can’t wait, bored to tears, running out of time, the whole nine yards, going 240 (very fast). a broken heart, you are my sunshine, break a leg (do super well)… and this is not very elegant, but college students say it all the time: to kick ass. “I really kicked ass on that assessment!” means “I got a great score!”

  4. There is a good book called Idioms. It is worth the price. I have used it many times over the last 25 years when teaching ESL. Maybe there needs to be some lessons just about idioms. Their literal meanings make them hard to understand for the ESL student.

  5. I know about idioms speaking a second language my whole life. Try to keep conversation, “literal,” if I use a word, or phrase, I make sure it is exactly what I mean.

  6. I think we have to be very literal when we talk to our students! I do enjoy teaching some of my older students some phrases like “chill out” and “way to go!” They love it!

  7. I have never heard “golden rule” in the context given. My understanding is “do to others as you would want them to do to you”. That isn’t quite the scriptural passage from whence it comes, but it carries the right meaning.

    The only other definition I’ve heard is a sarcastic one. “He who holds the gold makes the rules”.

    Others care to comment?

  8. I knew most of these idioms but I hadn’t thought about teaching them to my ESL learners. I thought that would be too difficult for them. I’m surprised to find that it is actually suggested.

    • Being a retired teacher of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students, it is absolutely critical that students who do not casually absorb these idioms have accurate access to them. It is the difference of knowing ‘some’ English and being ‘fluent’ in English. Being fluent includes idioms, difficult or not. We, as educators, need to walk through each and every one.

  9. What is fun is to draw pictures of the literal meaning and the figurative meaning, so students can visualize how funny and- idiom would be if it was taken literally.

  10. There is a book to help teach idioms to 6-10 year olds. “The King Who Reigned”. Also use “Amelia Bedial” books very funny and conversation starter.

  11. I realize that I’m late to the dance, but o wanted to throw in my two cents. As a kindergarten teacher for years, I would not suggest this be used for PreVIP or L2. I’m thinking that it should be incorporated into L3 about halfway through, as it does go jand in hand with conversational speech. I intentionally used all the figurative language in this comment to make that point. Our babies, be they native speakers or ESL, are not ready for this. I believe figurative language is introduced in CCSS in second grade and even then,any students struggle. I’m thinking this would be an excellent course to offer on its own during winter or summer camps. I do agree that it is an essential part of learning English and should be taught…I just tend to think that older students in higher levels would benefit more and be less confused.

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