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Seeing Eye to Eye with Idioms


Idioms can be a challenging aspect of learning English. These colorful expressions often don’t make literal sense and can be confusing.  Here’s some ideas on how to teach idioms to adult ESL students.

Why Teach Idioms?

Idioms are pervasive in everyday English. They add color to language, convey cultural nuances, and often summarize complex ideas. For adult ESL students, understanding idioms can:

  • Enhance listening and reading comprehension.
  • Improve speaking and writing fluency.
  • Increase cultural understanding


Strategies for Teaching Idioms

1. Introduce Idioms in Context

Start by embedding idioms in stories or dialogues. Contextual learning helps students grasp how idioms are used in real-life situations.

Example Activity: Storytelling

  • Create a short story using several idioms.
  • Read the story to the class, then highlight and explain each idiom.
  • Discuss how the idioms contribute to the meaning of the story.

Example: “It was raining cats and dogs, but Juan decided to brave the weather and take a walk. Little did he know, he would end up in a pickle when his umbrella was blown away!

2. Use Media Resources

Utilize movies, TV shows, and songs where idioms are commonly used. This exposes students to idiomatic expressions in natural settings and helps with retention.

Example Activity: Media Clips

  • Play a movie or TV clip containing idioms.
  • Ask students to identify and write down the idioms they hear.
  • Discuss the meaning and usage of these idioms in class.


3. Explain Idioms Clearly

Always break down idioms by their literal and figurative meanings. This helps students understand the metaphorical nature of these expressions.


  • Idiom: “Break the ice”
  • Literal Meaning: Physically breaking ice.
  • Figurative Meaning: Making people feel more comfortable in a social situation.


4. Use Visual Aids

Visual aids like pictures, cartoons, and flashcards can make idioms more memorable and easier to understand.

Example Activity: Idiom Flashcards

  • Create flashcards with idioms on one side and illustrations or explanations on the other.
  • Use these cards for quick review sessions or matching games.


5. Interactive Activities

Engage students with interactive and fun activities to reinforce their learning.

Example Activity: Matching Games

  • Prepare a set of cards with idioms and another set with their meanings.
  • Have students match the idiom cards with the correct meaning cards.

Example Activity: Idiom Charades

  • Write down several idioms on slips of paper.
  • Students take turns drawing a slip and acting out the idiom without using words, while others guess the idiom.


6. Encourage Usage in Speech and Writing

Encourage students to incorporate idioms into their everyday speech and writing. This practice will help them become more comfortable and natural in using these expressions.

Example Activity: Idiom Journals

  • Ask students to keep a journal where they write sentences or short paragraphs using new idioms they learn.
  • Periodically review and discuss these entries in class.


 By incorporating contextual learning, media resources, clear explanations, visual aids, and interactive activities, you can help your students unlock the secrets of English idioms. As they become more proficient with these expressions, they’ll find themselves communicating more confidently in English. Happy teaching!


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