Scratching Our Heads over Idioms and Common Sayings

Man Scratching HeadI find that students love to ask about idioms and common sayings they come across. Idioms especially lend themselves to fun lessons, but where exactly should they fit in? How should we teach them?

Idioms are common in conversation and they appear quite often in the news, so encounters with them outside class are inevitable online and offline. However, students need to be cautioned about idiomatic expressions. Some believe that using a lot of idioms will help their speech sound more natural. The danger, however, in overloading one’s speech with idiomatic expressions is that it can backfire and make one sound unnatural. Who colors each and every sentence with an idiom? And do you really use a proverb in every conversation? No. Otherwise you might come off sounding like the narrator reading the moral to the story.

Furthermore, students need to understand the importance of appropriacy when learning this kind of vocabulary. Many idioms are informal. Stating a proverb can be interpreted as advice or judgment, neither of which may be welcomed in certain relationships.  Our students need multiple encounters with idioms and proverbs to understand when to use them and with whom to use them.

“Multiple encounters” does not mean overloading our lessons with common expressions. I recall having to teach from a textbook on idioms in the past, and it presented long lists of expressions. What I found was that none of the fabricated contexts could recreate an authentic encounter. Students struggled to retain the language because of the sheer amount, and they also failed to grasp all the nuances without further instruction or supplemental materials. Idioms and proverbs are likely best learned through natural encounters, for instance, as part of song or film you are using for listening practice or within the headline of an article you are using for reading and discussion.

In  my YouTube videos, I’ve experimented with different approaches to teaching common idioms and sayings. My practice is generally to limit one tutorial to three key expressions. Any more could lead to information overload. Also, when possible, I include conversation with a guest speaker. In an upcoming lesson on idioms, I have no guest speaker, but I fully exploit my context by filming on location and connecting each expression to an activity.

Want a hint where I filmed my upcoming vocabulary lesson? Read this old posting.

Click here for ideas for providing communicative and controlled practice with idioms.


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