What are idioms and how can you teach them so that your students will be able to use them? It’s that time of year when idioms are popping up like spring flowers and you’re thinking of taking a deep dive into figurative language.
There are certain idioms kids love to learn and once they latch onto them, you’ll probably never hear the end of them. And that’s a good thing! But there are so many to choose from, so it’s sometimes difficult to decide which are the best idioms for teaching elementary students and how to teach them.
I’ve compiled some of the idioms that my students were crazy about, used often, and loved to sprinkle in their writing. But be warned: there is one idiom in this list that you probably don’t want to teach your students. See if you can guess which one it is.
What are Idioms Anyway?
Idioms fall under the broad umbrella of figurative language. Specifically, idioms are phrases and expressions that are nonsensical in a literal sense, but figuratively speaking, they can spice up our language.
I remember as a child, my grandmother telling me that I was a southpaw. I had no idea what she was talking about. She had to explain to me that the expression “southpaw” means “a person who is left-handed.” Even though English is my first language, I still needed to be explicitly taught the meaning of many idioms.
Another example is when my son was in primary school. He was playing with blocks under the table and my husband told him, “Watch your head!”
He replied, “How can I watch my head, Dad? My eyes are in the front!”
The meaning of “watch your head” had to be explicitly taught to him.
Teaching Idioms to ESL Students
When teaching idioms to ESL students, you need to be cognizant that many of the parents may not speak English and may not know the meanings of many idioms. Therefore, you need to choose strategies for teaching them that will stick. One way is using visuals. That works for some students, but not all. Another way is telling examples or stories that include idioms. That works for some students, but again, not all. The best way is to get them using the idioms over and over again. Use them in speaking, in writing, in songs, in games.
One thing that’s very important is for teachers to be mindful and aware of whenever they use an idiom. When I use an idiom with students, I also tell them what it means.
For example, if my students are super excited to go out to recess, and they’re jostling in the line, I might say, “Hold your horses! We have to wait until the bell rings.” Then I explain, “Hold your horses means we need to be patient.” It sounds mundane and redundant, but remember that students need to hear things multiple times before they will remember them and use them.
How to Learn Idioms and Phrases
Here is where the secret sauce to teaching them comes in! Before you begin, choose idioms that are age-appropriate for your students. Also, try to choose idioms that are common enough that they will be likely to hear them outside of the classroom.
I like to use a five step process for teaching and learning idioms.
- Introduce the idiomatic phrase or word. Include with the idiom examples, pictures, and a sentence or paragraph in context.
- Have the students think of an example sentence in which they could use the idiom.
- Have the students tell you what it means.
- Some students like to draw a literal picture of the idiom, and then write or draw the meaning of the idiom. This can be a slow process, but it can help cement the meaning for them.
- Tell the students you’ll be looking for idioms in their writing. Whenever you hear students use an idiom in speaking, acknowledge them and congratulate them.
Keep doing these steps throughout the year. Students aren’t going to learn how to use idioms overnight. The process of language acquisition is long and slow and takes plenty of practice.
Don’t Overdo It!
You may be tempted to create a list of 20 or 30 idioms and have the students learn them. But there’s no way they’ll be able to incorporate them into their language and thoughts if you pile on too many at once. It’s so important not to overdo it!
I recommend teaching one or two at a time, absolutely no more than five in one week. Give the students time to play with the idioms, toss it around in their writing and speaking. Use the idioms you’re teaching liberally in your own conversations with them during the week. Get them used to hearing them and seeing them. I chose ten idiomatic expressions for each of my idiom learning and practice packets. Watch the video to see examples of the topics and idioms activities. I guarantee your students will enjoy them!
If you like what you see, click on the image below to access all of the Idioms Worksheets packets. It’s a growing bundle, which means that you can purchase any one or all of them. If you purchase the bundle, any time I add another set of worksheets, you’ll automatically get them at NO EXTRA COST.
You can create a growing interactive bulletin board of idioms and examples. Place the idioms you’ve learned on a card on one side of the board and the definitions and examples on the other. You could pin them to the board or use pocket charts. Students will see and read the idioms every day if they’re in a visible place in your classroom. During literacy centers or independent study time, students can take the cards and play games with them.
Game Ideas for Teaching Idioms
- Play memory matching. Lay the cards face down and take turns making the pairs.
- Use a game board you already have. Stack the cards on the table face down. Roll some dice, pick a card, and explain the meaning of the idiom. If the student is correct, they move the number of spaces indicated by the dice roll. You’ll need to have an answer key for the students if you want them to play this game independently.
- Hand the idiom cards out, one to a student. Hand the definition cards out, one to a student. Play some music, and have the students walk around until they find the partner with the card that matches the card in their hand.
- A variation of that game is to tape the cards to the students’ backs. The students must walk around and ask questions to find out what card is on their back, and then find their partners.
- This game can use a game board you have on hand. Make a stack of cards with sentences that use idioms. Leave one critical word out of the idiom, like the sentences in my idiom packets. [link to products here] For example, “Don’t let the _____ out of the bag.” If the student can guess the word correctly, they get to roll the dice or spin the spinner and move.
Twenty Idioms to Get You Started
Can you guess which idiom I don’t teach anymore? The students went crazy about this idiom, and I totally never want to hear it again! 🙂
- Play it by ear.
- Get cold feet.
- As easy as pie.
- Cool as a cucumber.
- As flat as a pancake.
- A hot potato.
- Sweet as honey.
- In hot water.
- Pass with flying colors.
- The icing on the cake.
- Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
- Who cut the cheese?
- A hive of activity.
- A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
- Won’t hurt a fly.
- Be a night owl.
- The early bird catches the worm.
- Put a spring in your step.
- Stars in her eyes.
- Once in a blue moon.
Did you guess number 12 as the one I like the least? You guessed it! I have hilarious memories of the boys in my class going crazy with this idiom! Teach it if you dare!
One handy resource for finding kid friendly idioms and phrases is The Idioms. You can search for specific idioms, or search by topic.
Now that you know the secret sauce to teaching idioms, you’re ready to get the ball rolling!
P.S. Did you know that you can save a ton of time planning by creating a personalized curriculum map that you’ll actually want to use? You can learn how in this free video series, “Plan Your Year Like a Boss in 5 Days or Less.” Check it out by signing up today. You’ll get a workbook with links to all of the videos included. I created this series because I truly believe that every teacher deserves the weekend to relax. Yes, that’s you, my friend!