It’s a Piece of Cake: Easy Ways to Teach Tricky Idioms

If I described your writing assignment as “horse horse tiger tiger,” what am I saying about it? Would you “try to cut the pear in two” to figure out what my feedback meant? Or would you assume I “don’t have all my cups in the cupboard”? I can do this “from sun to sun.”

With that, I’d like to “put in my two cents” and say that idioms are one of the trickiest parts of a language. We native speaker use them “off the cuff,” but unless you’re familiar with Chinese, French, German, and Spanish most of the previous paragraph “is all Greek” to you. The “bottom line” is that we, as language teachers, need to introduce our students to these terms. They may not seem like parts of the “upper crust” academic language we focus on, but idioms will appear in reading activities in other classes and standardized questions.

The “bottom line” is, we have to teach idioms at some point. Here are some ways to make it “as easy as ABC”:

1. Don’t go over their heads. You’re not just teaching a word, you’re teaching a chunk of language. It might be test to teach only a few at a time so students can learn and practice them without too many idioms “going in one ear and out the other” (Long 2014). Some teachers suggest a group of as many as five to eight thematically similar idioms at one time (Pesce, 2015), but in practice I found one or two with a list of more conventional vocabulary words makes them easier to study, review, and find on tests.

2. It’s a long story. However you do it, it’s important not to teach the idiom as an isolated bit of language; rather, you should show how it “fits in” with larger meanings. I’ve had the most luck using fiction stories, especially when you can show what “the last straw” was for a character when there are no straws before that point in the story. For an activity, you can have the students retell the situation to see how well they comprehend the idiom’s meaning and appropriateness (Wu, 2008).

3. Pictures are worth thousands of words. It can be fun to show pictures of what the idiom literally means, especially if it involves unfamiliar objects (“hook, line, and sinker” won’t make sense to people who don’t fish) or interesting animals (“white elephant,” “elephant in the room,” or any of the many other English idioms involving elephants). A good comic strip can show how absurd the literal translation is, and that may actually help students remember the exact words as they negotiate its meaning.

4. There’s a time and place. By this point your students know the exact words, but there are lots of things to consider when thinking about how appropriate it is. As a teacher, you may want to let the target phrase “slip in” to your explanations, instructions, and conversations to effectively model it. Don’t be surprised if students have a hard time using it correctly, and be gentle with your feedback when you let them know that.

In closing, I’d like to add that many idioms have interesting stories behind them, but in practice it’s rarely worth the time to explain these. Something like “bite the bullet,” for example, brings back some evocative images from the Civil War that your students may not be interested in. That being said, something that ties back into a cultural practice or superstition, such as “break a leg,” can be kept fun and interesting.


Long, S. (2014). Teaching idioms. Reach to teach teaching adventures abroad. Retrieved from

Pesce, C. (2015). How to teach idioms and their meaning. Busy teacher. Retrieved from

Wu, S.-Y. (2008). Effective activities for teaching English idioms to EFL learners. The Internet TESL Journal, XIV(3).

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s a Piece of Cake: Easy Ways to Teach Tricky Idioms

  1. Nathan Hall Nathan Hall says:

    It depends. A person can probably get through day-to-day life without knowing many, but to understand much of the media – newspapers, magazines, novels – it’s a very useful skill. At the secondary level a student can exit an ELL program without having a strong knowledge of idioms, but they may get confused in the mainstream classroom if the teacher uses them often.

  2. english teacher. 56 senior high school,west jakarta Indonesia says:

    How powerful using idioms in daily activities based on your point of view ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.