Challenge of Idioms for Language Learners

by Abbey Algiers

It’s 9:00 am in a 5th grade classroom. The class consists of 25 kids, all native English speakers except for the newest student, Sui. This young girl, an English Learner (EL) has recently arrived from Burma, and although she studied English in her native country, she’s definitely adjusting to the language, pace, and nuances of the American classroom.  

The teacher begins class with instructions, “Okay, kiddos. It’s time to put your thinking caps on, we have a lot of ground to cover today! Instead of using our devices, you’re going to be left to your own devices. Yes, we’re going old school and getting back to the basics with some paper and pencil activities. Remember those? Or are you all drawing a blank? I want you to work on some math problems so you can learn the multiplication tables by heart. If you practice long enough, I know you’ll find that multiplication can be as easy as ABC.” 

Poor Sui is sitting in her seat, utterly confused. What’s a kiddo? And does she need to get some special sort of cap? Why didn’t anyone put theirs on? Does she need to draw a blank? What’s a blank?

While it’s rare that a teacher uses so many idioms at once, the reality is idioms are used more than we realize. As native speakers, idioms roll off our tongues as often as greetings and goodbyes. We just don’t realize it, because as native speakers,  their meanings are crystal clear, not as clear as mud like they may be to English learners.

For the English learner, idioms pose a special challenge.  Not only are there thousands of them, making learning all of them as impossible as learning every word in the English language…they’re confusing because of their very nature.  Idioms are unpredictable, meaning the language of idioms does not match their meanings. Noodle on that thought for awhile, and you’ll understand why it’s hard for our students to make heads or tails out of any idiom.    

This can be hard for a native English speaker, so one can only imagine the confusion of an English learner who’s trying to make sense of a new language in all of its glory - vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, slang, and then… idioms. It can be utterly confusing.

Adding insult to injury, let’s remember that idioms are everywhere! Idioms spill into everyday conversation multiple times a day, something that can leave an English learner baffled. Unfortunately, during the course of a day, the teachers, staff, and students don’t always realize that harmless everyday expressions may be completely confusing to the English learners among us.

This is why it’s important that we as EL educators both raise awareness about the excessive use of idioms in everyday language and educate staff on how to teach idioms to our EL students. This is no small feat, so let’s start with one basic thought.  Before looking at strategies on teaching idioms in the classroom, take a second to listen to English speakers around you for a short time. You’ll be surprised at how many idioms are spoken. Keep this in mind when talking to an EL, and watch for looks of confusion or failure to follow directions - maybe the instructions were given with too many idioms.  When this happens, touch base with the student and explain things again, clearing up any confusion. 

Next, let’s consider some strategies for explaining idioms in the classroom. 

  1. Take it slow. Start by explaining some of the idioms often heard during a school day. Maybe begin with 5 school idioms and explain these. While daily repetition might mean the student already understands these idioms, this isn’t a bad thing. Students can better understand idioms in general by beginning with phrases that are familiar and often used in everyday, social language like the ones discussed above. 
  2. Use stories that incorporate idioms. First, you’ll get the student’s attention by your willingness to share your life with him or her. When you have them engaged, you can incorporate idioms and take a moment to pause and explain the meaning to your captive audience. In addition, this technique allows you to kill two birds with one stone, and relay information to the entire class while you have a mini idiom lesson for your EL without drawing attention to the fact that they don’t understand the phrase. 
  3. Use visuals - there’s nothing like a good visual to give the EL a clear picture of what you’re explaining.  Bonus - use visuals, write the idiom on the board or a piece of paper, AND say the idiom aloud multiple times.  The more input, the better, and by drawing special attention to that idiom you’ll help the student better understand. 
  4. Keep it light. Learning idioms isn’t a matter of life or death, so try and make the instruction fun. Perhaps give it a daily spotlight - something all students can enjoy and expect.  Write an idiom of the day on the board, or show a short video clip that introduces an idiom.
  5. Look for hidden idioms in text, signage, and everyday conversation and make it a point to explain these idioms as the opportunities arise. 

After considering the basics surrounding idioms, here are some suggestions on activities for teaching idioms:

  1. Start an “Idiom of the Day” segment of class. This can be a short activity that is teacher-led or student-driven.  One method is to write the idiom on the board and explain its meaning with words and/or visuals. Another method is to have students work in pairs and try to guess the meaning of the idiom. An EL student can be paired with a strong student, thereby helping the EL grasp the language and make a friend/become a part of the class community.  Students can be tested each Friday on that week of idioms. 
  2. Ask students to create an Idiom Dictionary where idioms are collected throughout the year. Students are given the chance to write the expression, draw a picture that explains it, and/or use that idiom in a written sentence. EL students can again be paired with another student if additional help is needed.
  3. Offer students opportunities to select their favorite idiom and create a poster to display in the class. The end result? A room full of colorful idiom posters that offer EL students a visual resource at their fingertips.
  4. Use technology to create idiom presentations.  As idioms are taught throughout the year, create an ongoing slide presentation.  Have students create idiom-related slides and add to the show. Students will thereby take ownership in the ongoing presentation of idioms, making it a class project vs. something directed at the EL. 
  5. Ask students to read segments of books, texts, or magazines and underline idioms that may be hidden within the story. Provide examples of idioms in popular movies and television shows, podcasts, and songs. The more idioms students are exposed to, the more they will begin to understand. 

The bottom line is, idioms are everywhere and are just one aspect of language instruction for our English learners. That’s the bad news.  The good news is that idioms are perhaps one of the more interesting and fun topics that can be introduced to students.  In addition to letting students know about our idioms, their use allows us to ask students about their own language and consider what idioms they are using without even realizing it. 

To Further Your Learning:

Busy Teacher:  7 Conversation Based Activities for ESL Students

My English Teacher: 42 English Idioms Related to School and Education

My English Teacher: 1000+ Most Popular English Idioms and Their Meanings

Reach to Teach Teaching Adventures Abroad: Teaching Idioms

Twenty Money Idioms Explained to English as a Second Language Learners

Your Dictionary: Idiom Examples

Thirteen Ways to Express Common English Idioms in Other Languages


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