3 Alternate Ways to Teach Idioms

Idioms can be fun, once you know them.  But upon hearing or reading an idiom for the first time, they might seem confusing.  So how do you present them to your students?  How do you help students remember them?

The standard way is probably to teach idioms just like you would any other new vocabulary.  Idioms fall into the category of multi-word terms after all, right?  But unlike most new terms, students are already familiar with the components of idioms (i.e. they know all the words individually, but they don't yet know the meaning of the phrase as a whole).  So why not build off their pre-existing knowledge?

Here are three fun and memorable ways to teach idioms.

Balderdash

The original Balderdash is a board game in which obscure words are read allowed, and players have to first propose a meaning, then have to guess the true meaning.  You can take the concept and apply your own expressions - idioms, in this case.

Here's how it works:

  1. The teacher reads aloud an idiom, one that the students haven't heard before.
  2. Without discussing it, each of the students writes down a possible definition (it doesn't have to sound like it came from a dictionary; casual language is just fine) on a note card.  Students should aim for something plausible, as it increases their chances of earning points.
  3. Simultaneously, the teacher down the real definition on a note card (ideally using casual language that matches the students').
  4. The teacher collects all answers, shuffles them, and reads them aloud.
  5. Each student selects which answer they believe to be the correct one.
  6. The teacher adds up the scores:
    • 1 point goes to a player for every other student who incorrectly guessed their definition.
    • 2 points go to a player for guessing the correct definition.
    • 3 points go to a player for writing a definition that's very similar to the true one.
  7. Repeat with more idioms.  The student with the most points at the end wins.

If multiple answers are similar, you can combine them into the same definition when you read them aloud (and all players who wrote those similar ones receive equal points when others guess theirs).  Also, you might choose to allow some discussion leading into step 5; students can voice which answers they like an which they don't, and they can try to cleverly convince others that their false answer is the correct one.  You can read the full instructions for the original game here.

Balderdash is not only fun because of how silly it can get, but also it helps students remember the definitions later.  They might remember it because it surprised them, or they might remember it because they'll also remember the ridiculous false definitions as well.

 
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Vocabulary-Building through Association

Plenty of words are related to each other, whether they're opposites, noun-verb pairs, varying degrees, or whatever else.  Learning words by associating them with each other helps us to remember those words later.  As a teacher, you can help students establish and strengthen those connections in your students' minds.

 

Word Cloud

While the previous way starts with the term and prompts students to guess the definition, the Word Cloud method starts with the definition and prompts students to guess the wording.

Suppose you have a group of idioms that relate thematically - as in food idioms, body idioms, performance idioms, etc. - as that's often how they are grouped in books.  Take all the individual words from these expressions and scatter them in a word cloud (a visual pile with no distinctive pattern).  You can make one online, or you can just write them on the board.  I'd recommend making the determiners and prepositions smaller than the rest of the words.  You might also want to use different colors for different parts of speech.

Once all the words are displayed and students understand the context (also make sure they are familiar with each of the words), read out to them the definition of one of the idioms.  The students then have to guess the phrasing of the idiom.  Depending on the skill level of your class, they could discuss it and come up with an expression together, or they could individually write down their guesses and compare them afterward.

Their guesses shouldn't be a shot in the dark.  Many idioms make sense in the original context, but what makes them idioms is that they tend to be applied to other contexts.  So if students are given both the original context and the extended meaning, they should be able to produce expressions that match or at least are pretty close.

Etymology Story

A fun thing to do - even for native English speakers - is to explore the origins (etymology) of an idiom.  Hearing stories of how an expression came about is often fascinating.  You're welcome to do that with your class.  Alternately, students can come up with stories on their own.

Give each student (or pair of students) their own idiom, both the phrasing and the definition.  Ask the students to consider the phrase literally, then imagine the results, emotions, or other implications that might arise from that literal situation.  The idiom (as it's used now) should come from applying one of those implications in a different (non-literal) context.

Whatever ideas the students develop should now be expanded into a short story.  Have them write down a fictional circumstance in which the literal expression was applied.  The story then continues on to a new context that somehow reminds the characters of the earlier circumstance.  Then one of the characters would repeat the same expression (the student's given idiom) to convey how similar the two situations were.  And thus, the idiom would thereafter be used in similar situations, no matter the context.

It's up to you how silly you allow the stories to get.  Once everyone is finished, have them read their stories to the rest of the class.  At the end, test their knowledge (and remind them of the stories, if they need help).


The more associations you create for any new term, the more likely students are to remember it (read more).  Those associations can be wrong answers, the original context, or fictional stories.