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Teaching Idioms

November 01, 2006

Horses for courses

Hello again,

I was talking to some teachers recently about the best ways of helping learners acquire a good range of idioms. Certainly speech is richer when it contains idiomatic expressions but...

... there are so many that it’s difficult to know how to classify them and then introduce them in some way that will be memorable.

Of course, if the idioms appear in text, the learner will have something to anchor it to and is more likely to remember it and how to use it. But waiting for an idiom to appear means that few will be learnt and will be in no particular order.

I suggest that learners have a notebook divided into categories so that they can record idioms according to the field the idiom draws on. Under “cosmos” for example, they can record: the sky’s the limit, costing the earth, over the moon, stars in your eyes.

Of course some fields are richer sources of idioms than other. Animals and the human body are especially highly represented. If teachers have an artistic talent, they could draw cartoons to see if students can work out the idioms: raining cats and dogs, to put your foot in it, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, get the cold shoulder. The advantage of humour used in this way is that it too can act as an anchor in the learner’s mind. In fact, there is a book of cartoons illustrating idioms that does the job for you: 101 American English Idioms, Harry Collis and Mario Risso, Magraw Hill Contemporary, 1985.

Viewing language learning from a strictly utilitarian angle, I suppose we could say that idioms are unnecessary frills and learners don’t need them. In everyday speech, however, people use idioms frequently so learners need at least to understand the more common ones. And if learners do manage to use a few themselves, they can feel proud that they are really entering into the spirit of the language.

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