“An idiom (also called idiomatic expression) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers.”
My English Pages
Here are just a few examples:
Turn over a new leaf
Spill the beans
Hit the nail on the head
Easy as pie
Kill two birds with one stone
Skating on thin ice
I could go on. There are countless other examples. If you would like to read more, click here. This website has organised them alphabetically and by theme.
I searched Google for a good definition and chose the one above because it outlines my point: idioms have a “figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers”. If you are a native speaker of English, you have probably heard these idioms throughout your life and have probably never given them a second thought. But take the time to consider what they must sound like to students who are learning English as an additional language (EAL). Imagine if they are interpreted literally. Without explicitly teaching them, they would probably go straight over their heads (idiom intended). Although they are generally rooted in meaningful origins, most of them appear to make absolutely no sense at all! For example, how does a ‘pig’s ear’ mean ‘to have done something poorly’? I have no idea, but I have accepted it my whole life!
In my school in Hong Kong, students learn bilingually in English and Mandarin. English is an additional language for over 90% of students and families. They are generally very confident speakers but, nevertheless, we can’t use idioms so flippantly and expect to be understood.
Many child-friendly books, such as the one pictured, outline both the meanings and the origins of idioms. It’s very interesting to look these up! Every week, my students choose a new ‘idiom of the week’ from the books that we have. The chosen idiom is written on the board by students, drawn visually and briefly discussed. They spend a few minutes trying to figure out the meaning for themselves (I give some examples to provide context) and we then look it up. Importantly, I then take every opportunity in class to use the the idiom in authentic situations. Students love it and take great delight in using them as well. Over time, students collate a bank of idioms that are understood across the class and we use them playfully for the remainder of the year.
Of course, we can’t possibly cover them all in one year. We barely scratch the surface (again, idiom intended). My students do, however, gain an understanding of many common ones. When they hear an unfamiliar one, my hope is that they will recognise the figurative use of language instead of taking it literally. They can hopefully use their understanding of language and context to make meaning.
How do you teach idioms? How else do we use language in ways that might be problematic for EAL students? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
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