Published 27th November 2015
An idiom is a phrase which is not literal in meaning; instead, it is figurative. In other words, an idiom does not actually mean what it says. It’s no wonder, then, that idioms are problematic for EFL learners to learn and for TEFL teachers to teach. How are our students supposed to know how you’re feeling when you’re feeling under the weather and how are teachers supposed to explain that killing two birds with one stone has nothing to do with birds or stones? So you see, idioms can cause problems in the TEFL classroom, but there are a few strategies you can use to make things a bit easier for both you and your students.
Don’t teach them all
There are a ridiculous number of idioms in the English language. Some of them are amusing because of what they mean (or what they don’t mean), some are old-fashioned, and others are just plain odd. Trying to teach your students all the idioms you know is like finding a needle in a haystack. So when deciding which idioms you should and shouldn’t be teaching, consider which idioms are the most common in usage and which are most likely to be heard by your students. If our students are able to encounter language they learn in the classroom, in the real world, their learning will be reinforced. If they are not likely to come across an idiom, don’t teach it; rather spend that time and energy on a more useful language item.
Focus on a few
By the same token, there is no way your EFL students are going to be able to learn, remember and know how to use a long list of idioms. This is not to say that you should only teach idioms once in a blue moon but that you should teach only one or two at the same time. So you need to be picky about which idioms you teach, but then also how many you teach at the same time.
Put them in a context
Research has shown that idioms are best learnt within a context, or a story. You cannot teach a set of idioms on their own without a story surrounding them or else your students will never be able to use them appropriately. By putting them in a context or a situation, students are more likely to understand how they are used and so be better able to use them in appropriate situations. This will also provide an appropriate reflection of the number of idioms we are likely to use at any one time.
Teach them by theme
In natural language, we use idioms sparingly and so if we are teaching them according to a context, it can seem unnatural to teach more than one or two at a time. Another option is to teach idioms according to a theme, such as weather or relationships. In this way we are able to teach a number of idioms (though be careful not to choose too many) that are related to one another. We can then discuss different situations in which to use the individual idioms.
By their very nature, idioms can be a bit tricky, but if you use these ideas, you will be able to make learning idioms a piece of cake for your students.