Idioms are a complicated thing for many English Language Learners. In fact, many students struggle with them in their day-to-day life. Every language has its own idioms: phrases that say one thing literally but mean another thing figuratively.
Learning idioms helps students understand the cultural context and conversational skills. Many idioms come naturally to native English speakers, making them challenging for English Language Learners. Students with learning challenges like Autism or cognitive issues can find figurative language misleading and frustrating. In our experience, many native English speakers don’t always know the meanings of the idioms either, so they are great for all your students to learn.
What are some different ways you can help your students learn idioms?
Start with Common Idioms
Ask your students to make a list of idioms they already know. If they aren’t sure where to get started, brainstorm a list together. Use a piece of chart paper and start collecting as many as you can. If your students are still stuck, give them a few and see if that stirs up a few. If not, choose a book from our list below and point them out as you read.
Here are some common idioms our students have been able to list:
- apple of my eye
- raining cats and dogs
- it’s a piece of cake
- have your cake and eat it, too
- party pooper
- cat got your tongue
- let the cat out of the bag
- cutting corners
- curiosity killed the cat
- bite the bullet
- better late than never
- getting out of hand
- miss the boat
- on the ball
- pulling your leg
- the last straw
- under the weather
- money doesn’t grow on trees
We’ve also found a few lists online with lists of idioms. This site has a great list along with their usage.
Making the Connection
One year we challenged our students to come up with as many idioms as possible. Students were given strips of paper. They wrote the idiom in one colour and the phrase’s meaning in another. Then we linked the pieces together in a paper chain. Over the course of the year, we tried to make the chain go all around the room. We didn’t worry too much about duplicate phrases since the goal was to help our students learn them.
As we read books throughout the year, we would add any idioms we heard. We also asked our adults at home, other teachers and members of our community to help us add to our list. We managed to get most of the way around the room.
Act Them Out
Once you have learned some common idioms, a fun game is charades. Write common phrases on small pieces of paper and put them in a bowl. Divide the class into two teams. Have one student draw a piece of paper. They will act it out for their team. You might wish to set a time limit for students to guess. If they don’t guess within the given time, the other team can discuss and make a guess. Students can act out the figurative or literal meanings.
Have students write the idioms for the game in advance.
Create a Matching Game
Use index cards or other papers that are all the same size. Write the idiom on one card in one colour and the figurative meaning on another card in another colour. Continue writing different phrases until you have a set of 10-20 cards.
Students can use the cards by placing them all face down on a surface. One student will flip over two cards. If the meaning and the phrase match, they keep the two cards and go again. If they do not, the cards are flipped back over and the next student takes their turn.
Use Online Games
This game called Hold the Phone on ABCYA.com is a little young, but it is effective.
The Children’s University of Manchester has a great game, but be warned, occasionally the vocabulary and idioms are British English. Students in Canada and the US might learn some new words and phrases that are less common in their own region.
There are several idioms games on kahoot.com. Teachers and homeschoolers can create free accounts to play the different quizzes online. You can even have your students make their own versions to quiz each other.
Books that Feature Idioms
First, we want to point out that we do not use affiliate links for our book recommendations. We would prefer you visit your local bookstore. Many local bookstores have discounts for schools or teachers and will order books specifically for you. Shopping local and small helps our economy.
One of our favourite idiom authors is Wallace Edwards. He is an amazing Canadian illustrator and writer. His books are gift-worthy. Many of them feature idioms. Two of our favourites are Monkey Business and The Cat’s Pajamas. They are still available in many Canadian bookstores and online.
More Parts by Tedd Arnold
Even More Parts by Tedd Arnold
A Chocolate Moose for Dinner by Fred Gwynne
Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee
Icing on the Cake by Troon Harrison
Mad as a Wet Hen and Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban
In a Pickle and Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban
The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne
There’s a Frog in My Throat by Pat Street
Why the Banana Split by Rick Walton
Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms by Marvin Terban
Pigsty by Mark Teague
Punching the Clock: Funny Action Idioms by Marvin Terban
The World is Your Oyster by Tamara James
My Teacher Likes to Say by Denise Brennan-Nelson
Butterflies in My Stomach and Other School Hazards by Serge Bloch
You Are What You Eat by Serge Bloch
Reach for the Stars by Serge Bloch
I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World by Jag Bhalla and Julia Suits. This is a really fun one because it makes kids realize every language and country has its own idioms. Ours must sound so strange to others too!
Find More Books?
Get your students to help you find more books with idioms in this. We use these simple book recommendations sticky notes. We print out a few and then students help recommend different books in our classroom. You can find these notes in the Resource Library. Or we can send them directly to your inbox when you sign up for our email list.
Activities to Explore Idioms
All students can benefit from exploring idioms. These expressions can be used in writing, but mainly, understanding different idioms can help all students understand what they are reading since they are often included in fictional writing.
One activity that is a hit year after year, is drawing out the literal and figurative meanings of idioms. Divide a piece of paper in half. Across the top of the page, write an idiom. On one side, draw a picture showing the idiom in its literal sense. On the right draw it in the figurative sense.
For example, use the idiom “the apple of my eye.” On the left, draw a person with apples for eyes (the literal meaning). On the right, draw a person gazing at someone with love (maybe hearts in a thought bubble) which is the figurative meaning.
If you don’t have time to find idioms and put them all together for students, we have already done that for you. We created a set that features over fifty different English idioms. Each of the pages contains an idiom and has framed a place for the literal and figurative meanings. You can find the Idioms Activity in our TpT Store or Brain Ninjas Shop.
We also have a similar resource that uses French idioms. It can be used with a French Immersion class, a French Language Learning class or with English students. Each of the pages contains a French idiom with an English translation of the literal and figurative meaning. This means students do not need to be fluent in French to be able to do this activity. We use it with our English students just to explore them for fun. You can find the Expressions idiomatiques | French Idioms Activity in our TpT Store or Brain Ninjas Shop.
Find Pictures of Idioms
You may have noticed the pictures used in this post feature common idioms. Have your students try to figure out what the idioms are. Search online for pictures of other idioms. You can also have students create pictures of idioms and see if their classmates can guess the meaning.
Looking for Other English Language Arts Ideas?
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Practical Strategies for Reluctant Readers
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How do you help your students learn about idioms? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.