One of the most difficult part of learning a second language is learning its idioms, those fixed groups of words that have a specific meaning.
“Idiom” as used here is not to be confused with the colorful, figurative language we sometimes assign the term to: e.g., “It’s raining cats and dogs,” to mean it is raining very hard. Idioms are words than occur together and have a meaning in that context: e.g., “I’ll pick up some bread on the way home.” “Pick up” in this context means to buy and bring home, while in other contexts “pick up” can mean to lift something, to come give someone a ride in your car, or to approach a desired partner to get a date. Not understanding an idiom can lead to some humorous misunderstandings. A number of years ago, for example, there was a TV series about a young couple called “Mad about You,” “mad about” meaning “crazy about” or loving someone or something very much. One of my students thought the title of the show meant the same as “mad at you” and so was always expecting a program about an angry, hostile couple. This student was fairly fluent in English, by the way. Idioms are so difficult to learn because there is no real “rule” regarding these fixed expressions. In the example above there is no reason that the simple change of prepositions of “about” to “at” after the adjective “mad” creates a near-opposite meaning. The cause of the difference is really “it’s just how we say it.” This demonstrates another key element of idiomatic language: it is by convention that the meaning is assigned. So how do we teach these conventions? And how do we teach students to self-edit for key mistakes in idiom?
9 Excellent Ideas for Teaching Self-Editing for Idiom
Raise Awareness. Teach Meaning of “Idiom”
Many students are unaware of the concept of “idiom”: words that typically occur together in set expressions. If students have prior knowledge of the terms “idiom” or “idiomatic language,” they may know the definition mentioned before, the colorful “raining cats and dogs” expressions. Another common misconception is that idioms only occur in the conversational register. However, these fixed expressions with specific meaning when used together are also used in the academic.
Explicitly Teach Common Idioms
Select several idioms to teach each week—no more than five, preferably related to assignments students may be doing. Some common idioms for academic language include the following: “in relation to,” “on the other hand,” and “due to the fact that.” More conversational idioms include “no offense meant,” “out of the question,” and “turn back the clock.”
Analyze Common Patterns
Analyze the form the idioms take: adjectives often connect with prepositions, for example (e.g., “mad about” and “mad at”). Verbs also connect to prepositions: “run around” (to send someone on pointless errands to get her to stop bothering you) and “run about” (to run aimlessly from place to place).
Prepositional phrases are common in academic writing: “in order to” as well as adjective clauses: “due to the fact that…”
Note Common Idioms in Reading
Exposure to idioms as they occur in actual language use is important for learning appropriate context in which to use the idiom. Call attention to idioms in a text as you are reading and discuss their meaning. This will help students learn in what context an idiom occurs: e.g. to make an addition to a previous point (in addition to) to make a contrast (in contrast to) to show a result (as a result of). Organize the idioms according to function: “idioms showing addition” or “idioms showing contrast,” etc. This will help students begin to see patterns that idioms fall into.
Keep a Log
As they’re reading, students should keep a log of idioms they run across. They can hand in the log once a week, selecting five to ten idioms. Teachers can provide further instruction and assessment of the idioms that are recorded commonly across logs. If most students note a specific idiom in their logs, or if a specific idiom occurs over and over again in texts, these are worth further attention.
There are also dictionaries of English idioms available both print and online. Students and teachers may look through these to find useful idioms for study. For example, The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms is available online. It has 5,000 expressions in American English, drawn from a corpus, or body, of actual language use.
Ask students to practice using two or three new idioms drawn from the logs or reading in low-stakes writing assignments such as journals: the journal topics can be on similar topics as the reading so that the use of the idioms is more natural and authentic rather than forced.
Have students read their papers aloud. Have them circle places they may have stumbled or that “didn’t sound quite right.” These might be places that needs further attention/editing—in idiom or otherwise.
Having been exposed to a number of idioms and the contexts they occur in, as well as typical grammatical form of idioms, students are ready to edit their own work. First, they should locate the idioms in their work: for example, by checking for verbs that are commonly associated with idioms, such as “have,” “make,” and “take,” in such expressions as “have access to,” “make amends,” and “take the opportunity.” They should also check for prepositions as prepositions so often occur in set phrases such as “in addition to.” Students should then connect the verbs to their prepositions, prepositions to their nouns, etc., for analysis. Is the idiom correct in form, in use? Students may refer back to their logs if they wish.
Get a Peer’s Input
Have students spend a class day reading each other’s work, specifically for idioms and giving each other feedback. This can be a valuable exercise as peers are more objective about a student’s work and will often find errors more easily. In addition, the skills gained in editing someone else’s work can be applied back to editing one’s own.
Teaching use of idioms and self-editing for idioms is very challenging in second language instruction as idioms are formed by convention, common usage, rather than “rule.” Often people can speak a second language for years, fluently, and reach native-speaker competency yet still not have entirely mastered idioms. However, some methods such explicit instruction, reading, keeping a log of idioms, noticing patterns, and getting a peer’s input can help student acquire enough mastery over idioms to successfully self-edit.