Idioms are sometimes not included in ESL classes but this is a disadvantage to students who will at some point encounter them either in their studies or in real life. Learning a language is complicated and idioms are one of the more interesting topics. Here are some things to think about when talking about idioms in your classes.
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Amount: Not Too Many At Once
Planning an idiom filled lesson may not be the best approach to introducing this topic. Idioms are complex and difficult not only to understand but also to explain so consider introducing only a small number, maybe three to five, at a time. You can do this by including them in your usual lessons (see our Idiom Worksheets section for free lesson materials on this topic). This approach will give you enough time to cover them thoroughly and allow students sufficient practice time without overwhelming them.
Themes: Related To Your Topic
You can include idioms in your normal lessons by introducing them thematically. If they are related to the topic you are studying, students will have an easier time remembering them and will be familiar with the vocabulary you are using. When talking about pets, for instance, you can introduce idioms such as “work like a dog” and “dog tired” which are related to the topic and will give students something to discuss. What makes idioms so interesting is that they are a unique combination of words that have completely different meanings from the individual words themselves.
Many teachers do not introduce idioms to students who are not at the advanced level. In some ways this seems like a good approach because idioms are complex and have different meanings than their words alone suggest. However, idioms do not have to be just for advanced students, you can introduce them earlier as long as you choose ones that are appropriate for your students. Obviously beginners may not have the vocabulary and comprehension skills to learn certain idioms however, intermediate students could definitely benefit from learning about this aspect of the English language. Using the two examples above, you can even discuss how these phrases may have been created. Do your students think that dogs work really hard or get exceptionally tired? Maybe or maybe not but it is an interesting thought.
Comprehension: Make Sure They Understand The Individual Words First
Students have to know or understand the individual words of an idiom before understanding the idiom itself. Avoid introducing idioms which use new vocabulary words and be able to simplify the meaning of idioms. You could say, for instance, that “work like a dog” means to work very hard. Students will have to know all the words you use in your explanation as well so use the simplest language you can. Even with advanced learners, simplifying idioms to their basic meanings make them easier to understand and learn.
Practice: Ask And Answer
Students need to practice not just using idioms in sentences but also responding to their use and understanding their meaning. For instance, students may be able to create a lot of sentences using the phrase “morning, noon, and night” by saying “I study morning, noon, and night.” and simply changing the verb to make more sentences. To give students practice hearing the idioms used, ask them questions using idioms. By asking questions, you can also prompt students to use idioms correctly. For this example say “What is something you do morning, noon, and night?” Students should also be asked to identify situations that best demonstrate the meaning of idioms. For this activity simply prepare two or three sentences that do not use idioms and ask students to choose the one that best matches the meaning of the idiom they are learning. Using this example again, the correct answer might be “My father goes to work early in the morning and does not even get home until nine in the evening.” This gives students more time to think about what the idiom means. It is important to do practice exercises that test the students’ ability to use idioms as well as understand them.
Idioms may not be something you are prepared to introduce to your students but at some point in their studies, idioms will be important and you can give students a head start by getting them accustomed to these types of phrases early on. Just a handful each semester would be a good start.
You may also want to see our article on teaching idioms titled ‘How to Teach English Idioms and Their Meaning’
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