Idioms are a fun yet frustrating part of any language learning experience. They are difficult to learn because language learners are literal thinkers. If I told one of my students they had their head in a cloud, this is what they would think:

Head in the Clouds

(Credit for the awesome head in clouds picture goes to my 13 y/o daughter).

When teaching/learning idioms, it is best to embed it into an appropriate contextual situation (which is best practice for any kind of vocabulary learning).

  1. Pair the idiom with a known antonym or a synonym. For head in the clouds, I might use reliable or solid as an antonym and daydreamer for a synonym.
  2. Give an example from a story you are reading. Instead of typical descriptors like happy, sad, excited, lonely, use an idiom instead. For happy, use on cloud nine. Substituteunder a dark cloud for sad. A dangerous or looming situation could be transformed into a dark cloud on the horizon.  Substitutions like these enrich vocabulary and help students become better readers.
  3. Have the students draw it out. First have them draw what they think the idiom means (see above picture) and then have them draw what it actually means. For head in the clouds, a representation like this might be appropriate:

Embed from Getty Images

There are hundreds of other methods to teach vocabulary, but these are three of my favorite and three that work well with upper elementary to secondary level ESL students. What are some methods you use to teach vocabulary?

©Sara Ackerman, 2016

3 thoughts on “Idioms

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