Teaching Idioms to ESL Students

31 May 2022 | ESLteachers

Idioms are not just limited to native English speakers. English as a Second Language (ESL) students from all over the world are eager to learn the nuances of the language, including the use of idioms. However, teaching idioms to ESL students can often be a challenging task for teachers. In this article, we explore how teachers can effectively teach idioms to ESL students.

Idioms are expressions that have a figurative meaning different from the literal meaning of the words used. They are often used in daily conversation and can greatly enhance one’s English speaking skills, as well as being a great way to have fun with the language. However, they can also be confusing and difficult to understand for ESL students who are still learning the language, and haven’t grown up using them in everyday speech.

Here are a few tips on how teachers can effectively teach idioms to ESL students:

  1. Start with the basics: Before diving into the world of idioms, it’s important to ensure that students have a good understanding of basic English grammar and vocabulary. This will make it easier for them to grasp the figurative meaning of idioms.
  2. Use visual aids: Visual aids such as images, diagrams, and videos can help students understand the concept of idioms in a more interactive and engaging way. For example, using a video that shows the literal meaning and the figurative meaning of an idiom can be an effective teaching tool. This is also a great way of having fun with the class
  3. Provide context: ESL students are more likely to understand the meaning of an idiom if it is used in context. Teachers can provide examples of how the idiom is used in a sentence, and also provide context for the sentence. This will help students understand the meaning of the idiom better. Pairing this with tip 2 can reap huge benefits. For example, teaching the idiom “raining cats and dogs” tends to generate lots of laughs, particularly among the younger students
  4. Encourage students to use idioms in conversation: Once students have learned a few idioms, it’s important to encourage them to use them in conversation. This will help students internalise the idioms and feel more confident in using them.
  5. Make it fun: Learning a new language, especially idioms, can be a challenging task. To make it more enjoyable, teachers can incorporate games and activities into the lesson. For example, a word association game where students have to come up with idioms that are related to a specific word can be a fun way to learn idioms.

Here is an example of a fun activity: students can split a page in half and draw the idiom on the left side, and their literal meanings on the right. For example, the students could draw a bunch of cats and dogs on the left hand side and then heavy rain on the right. The visual connection between the idiom “raining cats and dogs” and its reality not only builds up an understanding of the idiom but also generates some laughs and encourages their natural creativity.   

Teaching idioms to ESL students can be a challenging task, but with the right approach, it can also be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for both teachers and students.