Published 16th June 2016


Idiomatic language can be very difficult for English language learners to get their head around because, by their very definition, their meaning is not the same as their constituent parts. In other words, just because you know the meanings of the individual words doesn’t mean that you’ll know what the expression means.

For example, how are learners supposed to know that killing two birds with one stone doesn’t involve any birds or stones, that fat chance and a slim chance are the same things and that hitting the sack is not an act of violence but of exhaustion.

At the same time, the use of idiomatic language is so prevalent in English that there are so many possibilities to teach and it can be tricky to know what exactly we should be bringing to our students’ attention.

We’ve already looked at guidelines you can use to ensure you are teaching useful language (because there’s no need to waste valuable classroom time on language we don’t use) but here we’ve decided to give you a list of our favourite idioms to teach. These are common in everyday language and useful, so getting to grips with these will stand your students in good stead.

  • To be up in the air
  • To be on the ball
  • A piece of cake
  • To hit the nail on the head
  • A race against time
  • To see eye to eye with someone
  • To be over the moon
  • It’s a small world.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • To keep an eye on someone/something
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • To be over the top
  • A rule of thumb
  • To be the spitting image of someone
  • To cost an arm and a leg
  • Speak of the devil!

(As a general rule of thumb, consider whether or not you use the idiom in your natural language. If not, then don’t bother teaching it.)

As you can see, these expressions are likely to be found in many authentic texts. What’s more, they lend themselves to colourful explanations and will make for very interesting lessons.

It must also be remembered that you shouldn’t create entire lessons out of a set of unrelated idioms. Rather teach them according to a related theme or when they come up in class.