Teaching ESL – Four Tips on Explaining Idioms

Here are four tips on teaching and explaining idioms.

1. What is an idiom?

To explain idioms start by explaining the word idiom. An idiom is a group of words that together mean something different than the individual words. This is confusing to the ESL student. For example someone with a chip on their shoulder has nothing to do with fried potatoes, wood chips or a damaged shoulder.

2. Context is king

Since the individual words in an idiom provide no clue to its meaning always use idioms in a context when explaining them. For example: He always had a chip on his shoulder because his education was inferior to everyone else around him. That sentence gives students a clue to work out the meaning of the idiomatic phrase. Another example: Daniel was in hospital for two years before he finally kicked the bucket. It was a relief to his children to attend his funeral since they knew at last their father was no longer suffering.

3. Get a good dictionary

When learning idioms a basic dictionary will be of no use since it will only explain the literal meaning of each word which is useless when it comes to idioms.

A good dictionary will have the origin of the idiom which may help to explain how it came to take on its idiomatic meaning. For example the idiom ‘apple of my eye’ originally meant the central aperture of the eye and it came to mean ‘loved, cherished above others’. Knowing the root as it were of the idiom may help some students remember the idiom more easily. The central aperture is highly valuable, it allows us to see and we cherish it. Bookish folk will be interested in origins though one can get bogged down in obscure literary references as researchers discuss the first recorded instances of an idiom. The website “phrases.org.uk” is helpful for an academic approach to idioms.

4. Teach idioms with games to help your students remember them

Teaching idioms idea 1

Explain six idioms in context either through examples in a poem or novel, or by describing them yourself. For each idiom draw an object that represents it on the board, for example an eye for “apple of your eye” or a question mark for “doubting Thomas”. After explaining the six idioms act one of them out to the class and have your students call out the idiom you are acting. If you are too shy to act pick a feisty student to come up front and do it for you. Using this method you bring your idioms alive, it’s not just a list on a page. Students learn the idiom in context, they have a visual of it with the drawing, they repeat it several times in context with the acting and they even have a feel for it by acting it out.

Teaching idioms idea 2

In a different lesson take six more idioms and teach them using mime. Introduce the idiom in context as before. Make up a sign or gesture for each one. Use your idioms in context again with the whole class making the gesture defined. Now say just the idioms without all the context and students continue to make the relevant gestures. Jump back and forth in no specific order through your six new idioms getting faster and faster and repeating ones you see students have trouble with more often. Repetition is the mother of skill.

Before moving on to a different topic or game revise the idioms you covered in the previous lesson either by drawing the pictures you used, or with acting.

Teaching idioms idea 3

Make up a fun conversation using all the idioms! Let students work on this in small groups or in pairs, each one taking lines in the conversation and performing to the class. You’ll have to give some examples beforehand of course, such as:

“You are the apple of my eye, I really love you babe”.

“Pull the other leg. You say that to all the girls.”

“Don’t be a doubting Thomas, it’s true my darling.”

“Pigs might fly.”

“I give up. You have a chip on your shoulder and it’s pretty annoying. I don’t know why you feel so inferior.”

Teaching idioms idea 4

Play Call My Bluff with idioms (taken with permission from ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults)

Category: Writing, Reading – From simple vocabulary definitions to enriching knowledge of English through idioms, metaphors and sayings.

Level: Beginner to Advanced

Group size: Any class size

Preparation: Students prepare definitions for homework

Vocabulary version

Students prepare three definitions of a word that they look up in the dictionary, two true and one fake. The class listen to the definitions and decide which the true one is. Once students have heard all three definitions have the students all stand at their desks and listen as the definitions are read out again and this time the students sit down if they think a definition is false and stand if they think it true. You can then easily see who has it correct and you can tell those students to award themselves a point if correct. Ideally you can give the preparation task as homework so as not to use class time for the research. Note you may also do two fake answers and one true one for variety, and this is best with beginners too.

Version with idioms or metaphors for advanced students

Students choose an idiom or metaphor and give three definitions of the meaning, two fake and one true. This is an enriching exercise. You have the option of distributing these out to the students, one or two per student, and letting them research the meaning for homework or giving students a free rein to find their own metaphor or expression.

For example the idiom “to kick the bucket” means:

a) to be seriously mad at someone

b) the name of a sport played on small British islands where balls get lost too easily in the sea

c) to die

New Teacher Tips on Teaching ESL Students From Kenneth Beare’s ESL Guide

ESL guide for About.com, Kenneth Beare talks about his work as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher and educational writer.

Dorit: Kenneth, thanks so much for participating in today’s interview. What is your background in ESL?

Kenneth: I worked as an ESL teacher for 20 years. I started teaching in Germany in 1984 and continued in New York City for the New York Association teaching Russian immigrants of the former Soviet Union vocational English, as well as in Italy in the 90s.

For the past ten years I’ve been developing English language teaching materials for special courses administrative purposes. I haven’t been teaching for the past five years. I also work as a content creator and consultant for English language development products.

With regard to my work at About.com, I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Since 1997, I’ve developed thousands of pages of curriculum free of charge for ESL teachers and students to use.

Dorit: Your answer actually leads me to my next question. What are some of the primary needs and concerns of ESL students and teachers who visit your site?

Kenneth: 60-70% of the students want to improve their communicative skills in speaking. They also come with a more traditional mindset when it comes to learning English and love the traditional quizzes on a wide variety of topics.

The ESL teachers are using industry specific dialogues such as specific situational content at the dentist office which has become a huge hit. ready to go lesson plans are also very popular with teachers. I also have requests for EFL learning and teaching resources and I will point people to those resources.

Dorit: How do you see the development of online language teaching and learning?

Kenneth: I’ve been involved in a number of startups and I’m amazed by the lack of entrepreneurial spirit with regard to online language teaching. Teachers need to be aware of how their online personalities come across. You have to engage and help and create a relationship. That is where I see the future of online language training moving.

On the other hand, students expect teaching to be traditionally taught online. With regard to my online content development, I’m not sure if what I’m doing always makes sense pedagogically. We will be at a turning point ten years down the road as people grow into the technologies.

Dorit: Yes, it’s certainly is interesting food for thought. What are you thoughts about teaching needs common to both EFL and ESL teachers?

Kenneth: Often the meeting point between EFL and ESL is when teachers teach vocational materials involving shared materials and setting similar instructional goals. Language chunks and standard phrases, and particular jargon to various areas are all part of this development of global English. The cultural consideration of the status of English should also be taken into consideration as English is used more and more as a lingua franca. It is also important to take other issues into consideration such as needs analysis as students recognize their own particular learning goals. For example, are they learning English to successfully perform in a job?

The needs analysis is very important and that dictates your curriculum, your teaching purpose and finally, determines success.

Dorit: The same needs analysis is also important for teachers, right?

Kenneth: Yes. You need to have instructional objectives in order to achieve goals and in different cultural classrooms, teachers need to think about this. Adding materials and completely going off on your own shows on one hand that you are a motivated teacher but too often, teachers do not set appropriate cultural standards for the needs of their students. For example, do students need and want to learn about British culture in an EFL setting?

In high school, a lot of students wanted English learning material on a global level that opened itself to contextual communication such as discussing what is happening in Iraq now.

Dorit: Well we’re out of time for now but I’m sure your information will be very helpful to ESL and EFL teachers and students if it hasn’t been already. Well, thanks so much Kenneth for your time and participation in this interview. I always enjoy speaking to passionate teachers and educational writers like you.

Kenneth: Thank you, Dorit.

Tips on How to Motivate Your English Language Learners to Study ESL

Rod Ellis defines motivation as referring to “the efforts which learners put into learning an L2 as a result of their need or desire to learn” (1995).

The two main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, can affect the learning process. Intrinsic motivation is task motivation that derives from an inherent interest in the learning tasks while extrinsic motivation refers to the external influences that affect the strength of learner’s motivation such as that which comes from teachers and parents.

While some students have their own intrinsic motivation or external motivation, other students need to be motivated to learn. There are many things that you can do as a teacher in order to motivate students to learn. These strategies are based on various articles I have read below.

Students are more likely to want to learn when they appreciate the value of the classroom activities, and when they believe that they will succeed if they apply reasonable effort. Hence, “student motivation to learn is an acquired competence developed through general experiences but stimulated most directly through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction or socialization by significant others – especially teachers and parents” (Brophy, p.40) When it comes to lower performing learners, teachers realize that such learners are accustomed to experiencing failure, hence, the teacher’s task is to help them experience success.

Here are some strategies and tips that may motivate students and stimulate them to learn.

  • Provide a supportive environment and establish a trusting bond. “Motivation is the feeling nurtured primarily by the teacher in the learning situation” (Ellis, 1994). Greet your students, interact with them, indicate a personal concern about them as individuals.
  • Cater levels of activity to students’ level – try and make sure that the learning tasks pose a reasonable challenge to the students – neither too difficult nor too easy.
  • Help students recognize links between effort outcome – learning is a long term plan of effort and investment.
  • Break down learning steps into digestable pieces.
  • Minimize student’s performance anxiety during learning activities.

Articles on Motivating Students

Brophy, J. Synthesis of Research for Motivating Students to Learn. Educational Leadership, Oct. 1987. p.40-48. (article summary)

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.