Teaching idioms is an essential element of any ELA classroom. It provides important support for second language learners, but it also helps native speakers add more interest and color to their writing.
I started my teaching career in Beijing China at an international school. It didn’t take me long to realize that my second language speakers would often be confused by the multitude of idiomatic expressions I incorporated into my daily teaching. In fact, to my surprise, even my English as a first language speakers struggled with understanding these expressions!
I knew I had to come up with some creative ways to integrate idioms into my classroom in fun and creative ways. Below are some of my favorite strategies to help students learn, practice, and use idioms effectively and correctly in their conversation and writing.
Set up an Interactive bulletin board in your classroom to expose students to a variety of idiomatic expressions they may encounter. One way to do this is to have an idiom of the week board. Each week swap out the idiom and present it to the class by providing the definition, a picture, and an example of it in use. You might also share a story from your own life that incorporates the idiom to make it more memorable. Encourage your students to use that particular idiom during the week and provide a small incentive for when a student uses it properly in their writing or in conversation.
Instead of providing definitions and examples for idioms, try giving students the opportunity to guess the meaning of an idiom based on its use in context. One way I love to do this is through text message conversations and music lyrics.
I would provide students with text message conversations for teens that seamlessly incorporate idiomatic expressions within the conversation. I had students attempt to infer the meaning of the idiom based on how it was used in the conversation. It’s amazing how much more they will retain when you start by having them determine the meaning rather than the opposite (where you provide the definition in advance).
I also would have students attempt to write their own text message conversations, so they could apply what they learned to different situations.
Idioms are an easy way to spark discussion. I use printable cards with different discussion prompts or writing prompts. Each prompt contains an English idiom, so students will learn the meaning of the idiom through writing or speaking! Some examples of the prompts include:
Students need to have an understanding of the idiom in order to have the conversation or start writing!
Idioms are often used to give useful and practical advice. I compiled my favourite idioms that give advice and I love to share them with students. For every 10 advice idioms I share, I also have students complete an assignment where they read scenarios and input which idiom would be appropriate advice for that particular situation. Some advice idioms include:
The holidays are my favourite time to bring idioms into the classroom because students can use the expressions in a timely way. For example, around Valentine’s Day you might share with students different expressions related to love and heartbreak. Here are a few examples:
At Christmas time, you can share expressions about gift giving, decorating, or snowy weather. I like to share the 12 Days of Idioms leading up to the holiday break.
For example, some I might share include:
And, at Halloween, you can teach students spooky and creepy idiomatic expressions like:
Holidays aren’t the only time you can organize your idiom instruction by topic. Consider using a theme like the weather, the body, or animals and teaching a few idioms related to that particular topic.
One of my favourite activities to do with idioms is an escape room! Students work in groups to circulate the room and problem-solve different puzzles, games, and activities related to idioms. This is usually a big challenge, but it is a fun way to expose students to new idioms and also tests and practices their understanding of the idioms they learned throughout the year!
Another fun idiom related game is holding an idiom paper fortune teller. These are just fun to have in your classroom as an early finisher activity or as a brain break where students attempt to guess the meaning of 8 new idioms.
Consider hosting an awards ceremony where each of the awards relates an idiom to the personality of your students. For example, a student may receive the Eagle Eye award for their attention to detail, or the Heart on Your Sleeve award for someone who expresses their emotions freely and openly, or the Big Cheese award to a leader. This is an easy way to make students feel special, but it also allows students to retain a stronger understanding of each of the expressions.
Idioms are part of everyday speech, but by intentionally taking the time to incorporate them into our classroom, we can better equip our second language speakers and also make native English speakers more confident to use these expressions in their own writing and speech.
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