Minds in Bloom is thrilled to welcome Christine to the blog today. Christine, who is a former reading teacher and a current librarian, has written a great post about teaching idioms as part of language acquisition for us. Enjoy!
The power of idioms can often be taken for granted. It is easy to think of them as “old sayings” and perhaps dismiss them as worn out clichés. But idioms are an important part of language acquisition and reading fluency. Their meaning may come naturally to a native speaker, but idiomatic expressions are metaphorical and can be challenging to understand for someone just beginning to understand language. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts require grade four and five students to “choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely” and to “recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs.” Teaching idioms should always be an integral part of any robust language arts curriculum.
There are several ways to teach idioms effectively. First, it is important that students know that idioms have a deeper meaning than just the words they contain. Drawing pictures of idioms or making them into some form of tangible art project can drive this point home. These approaches can lead students to understand the difference between literal language and figurative language. One year, my middle school reading students created Halloween-themed idioms by drawing, coloring, and cutting them out for a bulletin board display. I watched their excitement grow as they saw “can of worms,” “dancing with the devil,” “the graveyard shift,” “bag of bones,” and “bats in the belfry” come together to form a silly, sinister Halloween exhibit. We put them all together on a huge cork board with black bats as the border. Playing charades and acting out the words is always fun, and reading the Amelia Bedelia books, in which the main character always makes the mistake of taking idioms literally, are also great approaches with younger students.
Using idioms properly makes language far more succinct. If you try to explain, for example, that you and a friend have an issue about which you cannot come to an agreement, saying that you just don’t “see eye to eye” tells a listener immediately, in a few words, precisely what you mean. Students should be presented with idiomatic phrases a few at a time; too many idioms taught at the same time can overwhelm students and become something they try to memorize rather than internalize. Students will always encounter idiomatic expressions when they read, so knowing them will not only improve their reading comprehension, but it will also ultimately make their reading experience more enjoyable. Kids who enjoy reading, read more.
Presenting idioms thematically is a great way to get students excited about idioms. Like my Halloween-themed idiom project, my March-themed windy idioms are a fun way to help kids engage with and remember idioms.
In this lesson, students read wind-themed idioms (e.g., take the wind out of your sails) in a sentence and are then asked to describe the meaning of the idiom by using context clues. They are asked to match an idiom with its meaning, illustrate an idiom, and, finally, to write an idiom story. Teaching idioms as they occur organically, in conversational English, is a powerful way to get students to remember them. Once they know them, encourage students to use them in small groups and check for understanding. Eventually, this kind of figurative language will start to come naturally, and students will be well on their way to a deeper understanding of language.
Christine Murphy is a reading-teacher-turned-librarian and runs a large high school library in Massachusetts. It goes without saying that she loves books, words, and students. Please visit A Reading Heart on Teacher’s Pay Teachers to find some helpful and fun lessons for teaching students about language!