Exposing Students Early and Often to Idioms and Idiomatic Expressions

Benjamin Cebulash
PD Specialist
News on March 17 2021


Since idioms are embedded in language and in culture, they can be very difficult to discern, especially when listening with a non-native ear. On the other hand, when given the opportunity to see an infographic that literally explains the figurative idiom, its meaning becomes relatively apparent. In fact, there may be a similar idiom in a learner’s native language that they connect with this expression in order to aid in their language development. Whatever the case may be, there is a lot of empirical evidence that supports the teaching of idioms through the use of graphics and illustrations to assist in language learning and comprehension.

John Liontas, one of the leading researchers on the topic, said the following in his research article titled, Why Teach Idioms? A Challenge to the Profession.

Among the compelling reasons to teach idioms to learners of second languages are that doing so increases learners’ lexical and etymological knowledge, their knowledge of grammar and syntax and, even more importantly, their knowledge of usage (i.e., of the formal properties of idiomatic phonological, lexical, and grammatical systems) and of the use of idioms in communicative situations (i.e., of how to convey meaning through constructing idiomatic discourse) (Liontas, 1999, p. 445). Perhaps the best reason of all, however, is the unique opportunity to teach both language and culture from a multitude of sociocultural perspectives, leading to learners’ development and attainment of idiomatic competence.

As Liontas expresses above, teaching idioms exposes non-native speakers to the culture in which they may be learning about, or in which they find themselves immersed. Either way, when one hears an expression that is an anachronistic idiom — such as “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” — there is no implied explanation that in earlier American society, superstitions were heeded quite readily. Yet, some of the idioms we still use today are steeped in that same history. All of this could lead to a fascinating exploration of American superstitions and their origins, thus opening the learning experience to the cultural influences on language.

Overall, teaching idioms can be a lot of fun for the teacher and the learner. As mentioned above, using graphics or illustrations to represent an idiom or idiomatic expression is a great visual way to give context to an idiom’s meaning. When a student sees the example (much like in the image below), it provides the opportunity to differentiate between the literal and figurative denotation of the expression.

Many studies have ascertained that the human brain processes visual information far better and at a faster rate than text alone. Well-executed graphics or illustrations will greatly assist in building retention and ownership of a word or expression. Furthermore, having students create their own graphics or illustrations is an even more powerful way to give the learner possession of these nuances in language.

As a part of OTIS for educators, we offer many resources for teachers with English language learners. We recommend this SMART Notebook lesson on identifying idiomatic expressions, in addition to the CTLE-approved course Resources for Teaching Idioms and Colloquialisms to ELL Students. (Please note, viewing this content requires a subscription to the OTIS for educators platform.) Another great resource is the book A Little Bird Told Me, as seen in the above image.

For more tips, tricks, and tools for teaching in and out of the classroom, check out more articles on the Teq Talk blog.

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