How to Cover All Bases with Idioms

A recent online thread of conversation within a TESOL Interest Section prompted me to reflect on how effectively I teach idioms. The participants of the conversation debated how best to assess students’ mastery of English idioms.

To arrive at some answer it’s important to consider the environment and circumstances in which you teach. For example, when I make a lesson for YouTube, I know I have a 10-minute limit, but I can devote all 10 minutes to giving a vocabulary lesson. In the traditional classroom, the prescribed curriculum and school schedule creates your framework.  If an idiom appears within a grammar or reading lesson, there may be only enough time to explain the meaning of the expression. However, if you’re teaching within the context of a vocabulary lesson and the class lasts for 45 minutes, you likely have time to do more than just address the meaning.

What can be offered beyond the definition of an idiom? A few times I noted the etymology of an expression because knowing the origin of an idiom can help a student understand and retain it. I’ve also begun to address the grammar each expression requires in its usage. Does it function like an adjective or an adverb? My exercises check students’ comprehension and encourage meaningful use of each expression. This approach, which is used to teach three items at a time, just about fills the 10-minute limit. But should I consider modifying my approach to include other aspects and other forms of practice? What about in your classroom? Have you tried to address more than just the meaning of an idiom? If so, then how?

  • Register. We could make a stronger effort to clarify the register of expressions that we teach. Most idioms and sayings tend to be informal, but a good number remain appropriate in professional settings. For example, you may not want to talk about making a killing within a business presentation to the higher-ups at your company at the risk of sounding crude, but to mention a competitor’s cash cow is acceptable.
  • Appropriacy.  I recently taught expressions related to bulls. Perhaps I could have clarified in which relationships two people lock horns and in which situations you should take the bull by the horns. I had hoped that through my examples and the comprehension checks, students would understand the appropriacy of each expression, but my instruction could have been more direct.

What forms of exercises could take students beyond the meaning of idioms?

  • For register we could design a true/ false exercise. Model:
  1. You can advise your friend to take the bull by the horns.        T or F?
  2. You can advise your co-worker to take the bull by the horns.   T or F?
  3. You can advise your boss to take the bull by the horns.            T or F?
  4. A father can advise his son to take the bull by the horns.         T or F?
  5. A student can advise her professor to take the bull by the horns. T or F?
  • For appropriacy we could design an editing exercise. Model:

Decide if the expression is used appropriately. If not, explain why.

  1. For a long time I couldn’t decide what to order off the menu, but then I took the bull by the horns and told the waiter to bring me a fish sandwich.
  2. I can’t fix the sink myself, but I can take the bull by the horns and call a plumber.

You can kill two birds with one stone (a nice idiom to know!) and have students create their own examples for discussion. However, this exercise would likely require attention to a number of aspects, including meaning, grammar, register, and appropriacy. The advantage of an exercise designed by you is that you can limit the focus to appropriacy, making certain students understand in which situations the idiom is acceptable.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. maria says:

    Dear Jennifer,
    Your work is remarkable.i need the difference b/w british and american english in your opinion.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hello Maria,

      One of my colleagues, Ken Beare writes for He’s put together some useful information on the differences between American and British English.
      Click here for his main discussion on the topic.
      Click here for his UK to USA “translator” for common words.

      I acknowledge the three main areas of difference to be pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. As with any two groups of people, cultural references will also be a cause for potential misunderstandings. References to TV shows, sports events, artists, etc. can be made by one group and not be understood by the other due to lack of familiarity with the speaker’s culture. However, for the most part speakers of both varieties understand one another.

      Does that help?

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