Teaching Idioms According to Webster?s Dictionary an

According to Webster's Dictionary an idiom is 'an expression whose meaning cannot be predicted from the usual meaning of its constituent elements.' I also like the definition of T.C. Cooper's that 'An idiom can have a literal meaning, but its alternate, figurative meaning must be understood metaphorically.' In the last week, since choosing 'idioms' as a subject for this paper, I have been particularly aware of how many of these phrases are used in everyday speech -' 'It's a piece of cake,' 'I'm fed up!' 'It's raining cats and dogs,' 'Let sleeping dogs lie.' These are enough to make a student who has consulted an English dictionary shake his head and say, 'I can't make heads or tails of what these phrases mean,' which, of course, he cannot do until he has been taught the actual rather than the literal meaning.

It occurs to me that a student with advanced skills would need and want to learn idioms in order to better his comprehension of the English language as well as his ability to speak fluently. I also believe that students on a lower level would enjoy learning an occasional idiom because these phrases make the English language more colorful and unique. (However, studies have shown that children up to the age of nine tend to interpret idioms quite literally, thus attempting to teach them to young children would likely result in confusion and misunderstanding ).

With this need to learn idioms comes the challenge of teaching phrases whose meaning can only be known through conventional use. A good way to begin would be an explanation to students that idioms at first seem to make no sense and often are learned in the same way new vocabulary words are learned. Teaching the history of how an idiom came into common usage is also helpful to students and may provide clues to its present usage. Students can relate to the concept of idioms, when they explore the use of idioms in their own language. For example, in a Spanish language class I once took, it seemed odd to me that the phrase 'you're pulling my hair' meant you're kidding me until one of the students realized that in the English language the idiom 'You're pulling my leg' had the same meaning. Teaching idioms can be interesting in that they would easily lead to discussion about figurative language and why they are used in speech and writing. There should also be a word of caution introduced so that students understand that idioms are usually used in social situations, but when more formal language is required, there are usually more appropriate language choices.

In teaching idioms, the teacher should begin by choosing idioms that are frequently encountered so that students have opportunities to hear, read and use the expressions. It is also important to choose idioms that do not involve difficult vocabulary and grammar. Students should also be initially introduced to idioms which have transparent figurative meanings.

Along with learning about idioms, students can be introduced to metaphors and similes which also provide an increased ability to express ideas and thoughts. Being able to understand and use more figurative language adds an interesting and colorful element to a student's communication skills. I hope one day to be able to teach English to students with other language skills. If I am fortunate enough to do this, I will be sure to at least introduce my students to idioms because they are fun, somehow make English more approachable (less formal, anyway), and add a valuable dimension to students' skills in English communication.


On line web sites: International Reading Association - Read Write Think: Lesson Plan. Figurative Language: Teaching Idioms, Abisamra, Nada, American University of Beirut.

How English Works, Swan, Michael and Walter Catherine Oxford University Press, 2004.

Mary Beth Harris, a teacher at Tampa Preparatory School and personal friend