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Teaching Idioms

Although I stated I would blog about what I have learned at the University of Iowa, this posting is more inspired of some news about a colleague of mine whose proposal was accepted by the TESOL organization to write about about teaching idioms.

I have always been interested in idioms when I was growing up, and when I first became an ESL teacher, I wanted to teach them, but I realized how impractical many of those idioms were.  That's when I realized that I liked them because certain idioms were only spoken by certain groups of people and not the general English speaking population of the world or certain counties.  Since then, I have avoided teaching idioms directly.

When I was earning my MA degree at UMBC a decade ago, I learned that idioms should be taught as vocabulary for the most part.  I also learned that it was important to separate phrasal verbs from idioms. The average American English speaker usually lumps the two together as idioms.  Phrasal verbs are more grammatical than idioms.  I forgot the source, but I remember reading that Americans used phrasal verbs more in their speech compared to their British counterparts.  However, phrasal verbs are more widely used than idioms.

Since my first job, I had avoided teaching idioms completely until my second year at the ESL Institute at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.  It was there that I found that my students had an interest in idioms, and I found that some of them were using them poorly.  For the most part, these young 20-something undergrads were sometimes speaking like older Midwesterners.  Perhaps that's cute for the older folk of La Crosse, but they may be embarrassed when talking to people their age or to other English speakers not from the Midwest.

I believe my own usage of idioms is not the accepted norm, whatever that is if it exists, so I did not feel comfortable teaching idioms in depth in class.  Instead I designed a short conversation activity where each student or a pair of students had to talk with an American student on campus about the idioms.  Once a week they had to talk about 4 idioms.  I tried to diversify the idioms a bit, so the conversation didn't get boring (although idioms may be boring for some or many anyway).  Another reason to vary the idioms was to expose that some idioms are used more frequently than others and some idioms are associated with different groups of people.

Here is an example of the first of four idioms I assigned in the first week of classes:

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • What does it mean?
  • Do you use this idiom?
  • If yes, how often do you use this idiom?
  • If no, who uses this idiom?
  • When is it appropriate to use it?
For the first question, I wanted them to get their partner's definition of the idiom and not a dictionary definition (although sometimes they could be the same).  When they came to class, the students shared their answers with each other first to see the variation of meanings depending on the person they interviewed.  They could also witness that some Americans never used certain idioms whereas others did a lot.  I was hoping that the students would find some similarities across the answers for the last question, which we discussed as a whole class in addition to the first.  In fact, I insisted that the appropriateness of the idioms was usually more important than the actual meaning.  Although now, I would need a study to back me up on that--something in pragmatics.

The other idioms of that first week were "throwing the baby out with the bath water," "rattling one's cage," and "pushing up the daisies."  Going back to pragmatics, I really wanted them to discuss topics that these idioms bring up as some of them have some type of moral or vivid narrative behind them.  In this sense, learning about the idiom is more about learning about the speaker and his or her culture and less about the meaning of the phrase.  That's why I thought it was a valuable lesson.

As for student feedback, I'd say roughly 75% of the students strongly or mildly liked the lesson.  Of this 75%, fewer than half of them liked it for the vocabulary and they strongly liked this activity.  The majority of the 75% liked it for the interactions although their fondness for the activity was weaker.  The other 25% of the class did not like it and some of them found no value in either learning the idioms or the conversations with Americans.


I used this activity for both semesters of my second and final year at the ESL Institute.  Some students who successfully completed my class wished to continue the assignments afterwards, but I could not follow them as closely as they were no longer in my class.  Although this activity could be used in a variety of ESL classes, I used this in a listening and speaking class for students with novice-high proficiency according to the ACTFL standards.  I believe I would have had more detailed discussions with students of higher proficiencies, but this class was the highest level speaking and listening course that I taught.


If you are interested in where I got my list of idioms, it was from the Longman American Idioms Dictionary.

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