Should Idioms Get the Boot?

Few, if any, would argue against the need to focus on vocabulary skills in the ESL classroom. All the buzz about the Academic Word List and the General Service List attests to that. High frequency words are taught for general and academic purposes. But what about idioms? Can we argue the need to teach them? Should they be regarded as an appetizer or dessert and never a part of the main course?

I’ve written about how to teach idioms in the past, but I’d like to consider if we should teach them at all. I believe there are some cases when they must be addressed. For example:

  • When a student asks us directly to explain an idiomatic expression
  • When an idioms appears in a reading or listening passage and could cause confusion

What about at our own initiative? Should we make a deliberate choice to teach a set of idioms? While I wouldn’t rank idioms as high as verb tenses and intonation patterns, I think they do have a place in the ESL classroom. My reasoning is the same as it is for teaching informal speech patterns. The students are going to encounter idioms, and if they’ve had some exposure to these expressions, they’ll be better prepared to comprehend and react to real-life situations. Students don’t necessarily have to incorporate idioms into their speech. In fact, they’d be better off using idioms sparingly and cautiously. It would be easy for a non-native speaker to misjudge the appropriacy of an idiom or forget the grammar a certain idiom requires. (Correct: Give someone the boot… Incorrect: Give to someone a boot…)

If you decide to teach idioms, I’d offer the same advice as I did in my other posting on idioms. Try to go beyond the meaning. Teach register and appropriacy. As with any vocabulary, limit the number of items you teach at one time and always teach vocabulary in context. Use authentic sources if possible to emphasize the frequency of idiomatic expressions. From advertisements to song lyrics to news headlines, idioms are out there. I think it’s a good idea to help our students make sense of the everyday language they will encounter.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Chiew says:

    I believe teaching idioms as a stand-alone lesson isn’t very productive. They are difficult to remember and students may use them out of context. However, they are a very important part of our language, in fact, of every language, and you can only say you’re proficient in one if you start using them naturally.

    I like to find them in recent usage, as in magazines, newspapers, music, etc., and elaborate from there. Some readers might have noticed the ‘idioms of the day’ section in my blog. I find that taught in this context, students not only understand them better, but also retain them for longer.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I agree that CONTEXT is key.
      It’s good that students have online resources like your Idioms of the Day to help them make sense of these expressions.

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