Idioms and EAL: crossed wires or a piece of cake?

“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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  1. Accents and dialects are problematic for some EAL students. At A-Level, discussing attitudes towards them can be a topic fraught with difficulty as they do not share native speakers’ prejudices surrounding Brummie or Geordie for example. At primary, it may be a fun topic to not only expand their knowledge of idioms but also to share interesting examples of dialect from the UK or other countries if necessary. Though explaining how they cruckled in the snicket may give their parents a headache, it’d be a good way to help raise their awareness of other cultures.

    1. Hi Jon,

      I agree, but before we explore accents and dialects within the UK, we can share wider examples. Through their schooling, my students make contact with teachers from all over the world, especially Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. It’s interesting and fun to first explore the differences between these countries. I’m amazed at how well our students can adapt to different accents as well. I think our accents naturally fade over time in an international setting, but they are still very different from each other!

      Thanks for the comment!


  2. Love the idea of Idiom of the Week. Would be cool to have students do a CSI of their interpretations and then have a discussion on it’s meaning. I’m sure you’d get all kinds of interesting interpretations.

    BTW – Really like the new look. It has a cleaner feel to it.

    1. Hi Tima,

      As always, thanks for the comment. CSI is a cool idea for this. It’s one of my favourite routines for making thinking visible. I appreciate the feedback on my blog’s new look. I’m still playing around with some settings but I’m much happier with it now. It seems more professional. I can also showcase my favourite articles in the ‘featured’ section.



  3. Idiom of the week – I love that idea.
    I tend to avoid idioms as much as possible in contexts of learning English and learning through English, but I agree that in contexts of learning about English, we should expose these. There’s no shortage of Cantonese and Mandarin idioms either; these funds of knowledge can be used to build new cultural knowledge of English. There are also no end to the English cultural metaphors or turns of phrase that appear to make perfect literal sense: “Head down that way.” “Take a right.” “By the way.” “Keep your eyes open.” “Watch out.” “Have a go.” “Catch/take the bus.”

    1. Hi Brett,

      Thanks for the comment. I find that exposing them in such an informal way is effective enough at this stage. I don’t feel the need to dedicate lesson time to idioms. It’s really just a way to raise awareness and have fun with English. I never thought about Chinese idioms. It would be interesting to share these as well and make comparisons. As always at VSA, we should consider what the students’ other language/s offer to support us as English teachers.

      Thanks again,


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