Teaching Idioms to Young English Learners

Well-chosen children’s literature can provide an excellent opportunity to explicitly teach the concept of idiomatic language to young English learners.  Thematic units on friendship or feelings are an especially good way to introduce idioms and tie them to the lesson theme and a children’s book.

Here is a list of “heart idiom”s for these lessons:

  • to have a heart of gold – to care about other people
  • to wear your heart on your sleeve – to let everyone know how you feel about someone
  • to eat your heart out – to be jealous of someone
  • to have a change of heart – to change your mind
  • to have your heart in your mouth – to be scared or nervous
  • to have your heart set on something – to really want something
  • to have a big heart – to be kind to other people

When teaching young children, teachers need to introduce idioms in the context of literature. For intermediate 2nd- and 3rd-grade students, the concept of figurative language can be introduced by reading Pa Lia’s First Day.

In Pa Lia’s First Day, the main character in the story experiences a series of emotions that lend themselves to introducing figurative language. In a discussion after reading the book, students determined that Pa Lia had a big heart. They then brainstormed situations in which they had done something to show that they have a big heart. Using this heart pdf, students wrote their good deeds on the front of a heart-shaped sheet of paper and drew a picture on the second sheet.

Finding idioms in children’s literature

If appropriate to the ability level of the group, help students find the figurative language in a book that they are reading. Ask questions such as ” What does each expression sound like it means? What does it really mean? Can you tell the meaning from the context of the story?”  Explain how the author paints a picture with words.  Pa Lia’s First Day is a good  resource to demonstrate how to find idioms in a text as it has excellent illustrations.  Here are some of the examples of figurative language  that describe how Pa Lia felt:

  • “Her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton” means she was so nervous she could barely talk.
  • “Her stomach felt like it was filled with one thousand fluttering butterflies” shows that her stomach felt upset.
  • “Pa Lia felt like a teeny tiny minnow in a huge, giant ocean” indicates how Pa Lia felt lost.

Teaching idioms to ELs in Grades 4–5

With intermediate ELs in Grades 4–5, students can review basic emotions and feelings needed to complete an activity that demonstrates the literal and figurative meaning of expressions that they come across in literature.  Literature about friendship or feelings can also be included in the introduction to this unit as it provides a natural way to talk about the language.  Provide a list of  the heart idioms to students from the list above. They then brainstorm what each idiom sounds like it means. For example, “to have your heart in your mouth” evokes a picture of someone with a Valentine-type heart in his or her mouth. By giving examples of idioms in a sentence, elicit from students what each of the idioms actually means.

Have students each pick an idiom to illustrate. They receive two copies of a heart-shaped sheet of white construction paper. On the first sheet, they draw a picture of what the idiom sounds like it means. On the inside sheet they draw a picture of the figurative meaning with a definition and original sentence . The two hearts are backed by a larger red heart.
In order to have a real audience for their work, ELs can take their idioms to a general education class. They take turns holding up their pictures for classmates to guess what the idiom is. If the idiom is not guessed, they show the second page.

Additional resources to teach idioms to students of all ages

What idiom activities do you use with your primary students?

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to Teaching Idioms to Young English Learners

  1. Wilson Ruano says:

    This is one of the most important topics to teach, idioms in our own language causes problems.So We really need to learn american idioms now!!!

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