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Fun with Idioms in ESL Lessons

Updated on January 22, 2013
BlossomSB profile image

Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

Cuisinaire | Source

ESL English Idioms

Idioms, clichés and set phrases are all fairly similar in their meaning and the way in which they are used.

  • A set phrase is a group of words that when they are used together have a particular meaning.
  • An idiom is a group of words whose meaning is different from the meaning of the individual words.
  • A cliché is a phrase or idea that has been used so often that it is no longer interesting or effective. However, it is worth noting that what is a cliché for one person may be an entirely new phrase for another person; just as a first introduction of Cuisinaire for mathematics can be for someone who has never encountered it before.

ESL teachers can see how confusing these English phrases and idioms can be for students and in the early stages of learning for their students, as well as speaking fairly slowly and with a limited vocabulary, the teachers try to keep their communications with their students as clear as possible of idioms, to prevent that confusion. However, especially if the students are living in an English-speaking environment, they will soon encounter idioms as they progress.

By the time the students have reached an intermediate level of competency, they are ready to be extended and teaching idioms to ESL students can be fun for both students and teachers. Students will probably find that some English idioms are similar to those in their own language, while others can be completely puzzling. When preparing lessons involving idioms, it is surprising just how many idiom categories there are, so it is probably best to choose only one or two categories at a time for each lesson.

Idiom Categories

There are innumerable categories and some of them can easily be found on the Web, but once you have chosen a category for your students to discuss and learn about, it can be interesting to find out if they have already come across them and which ones they could understand and which needed to be explained. If the student group is small, it can be discussed with the teacher, but if it is bigger it can work well if the students are divided into pairs or small groups.

It is useful to note that many English expressions and idioms are country specific or even area specific, such as some that would be readily understood in a farming community, but would completely mystify a city dweller. Some idioms for ESL students may be interesting and relevant, while others may quickly be overused and become clichés.

Categories include idioms about animals, the body, clothes, death, food, money, plants and flowers, religion, transport, the weather, and many more. Within some of the categories there can be just a few idioms, while in others there may be a hundred or more.

To give an idea of what is in an idiom category, see the following list, but even these are not exhaustive and you will probably think of several more.

Plants and Flowers

This list could be much longer, but it will give an idea of the variety of idioms that are just under this one category. A number of these expressions are often used in the negative, as in: His life is certainly not a bed of roses.

A bed of roses: easy, comfortable

Barking up the wrong tree: To be wrong, to misunderstand

To beat about the bush: To prevaricate, to not say something straight out

Can't see the forest for the trees: To be so concerned with small details that they cannot view the whole objectively

Clutching at straws: Trying anything, but not likely to succeed

Come up smelling like roses: To emerge victorious from a difficult situation

Easy as falling off a log: Easy, simple

Fall off the twig: Die

Gild the lily: To unnecessarily add more to something already complete

Hit the hay: Go to bed

Lead someone up the garden path: To deceive, to lead someone astray

Let the grass grow under your feet: To procrastinate, to waste time

Make hay while the sun shines: To not waste time, to act as quickly as possible

Find a needle in a haystack: Very difficult or impossible to find or solve

Practice With Idioms

As you and your ESL students investigate the use of idioms together, you will find that many are quite ancient and can be found in literature that is hundreds of years old. There are even some that are still used that can be found in the Bible.

Suggested Practice Exercises:

  • Students could put idioms that you choose into context in sentences
  • They could rewrite sentences that contain idioms, changing them to plain English
  • They could search for examples of idioms and clichės in magazines and newspapers.

It is interesting that the categories that seem to have the most idioms are related to basic human needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. It gives you food for thought, doesn't it?


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    • Lady_E profile image


      3 years ago from London, UK

      I found this interesting and useful. I teach ESOL and have pinned it to my ESOL Resources board on Pinterest. It's lovely the way you included the meanings of the Idioms too.

      Thanks and Best Wishes.

    • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      John Bell Smithback: I've just looked up your website and it's wonderful! You have such a lot on offer that would be most helpful to students and teachers alike.

    • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      teacherjoe52: Thank you for your positive comments. Interaction with the students really is fun for both students and teacher, and learning is best done when it is enjoyable. GBY

      shara63: I'm so glad that my hub is helpful. Languages and the way we say things and communicate are so interesting.

      always exploring: Glad you enjoyed it, there is always something new and exciting to learn.

      John Bell Smithback: I remember a sports commentator who was going to France and joined the conversation group at Alliance Française when I was a member, he was always noting down different terms to learn and remember to make his commenting more interesting.

      teaches12345: Thank you for your comments.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      Now I know what Gild The Lilly means. I have heard this used before but was uncertain as to its meaning. Interesting hub read, as usual.

    • profile image

      John Bell Smithback 

      6 years ago

      Newspaper headlines are frequently a good place to look for interesting idioms, and the sports pages never leave you anything but breathless with their use of them. Essentially, nearly a third of English is idiomatic. Little wonder anyone learning the language is frequently blindsided and left in the dark by them. I've been teaching idioms for 30 years, and if I may, I'd like to suggest that anyone interested in learning more about idioms visit my website:


    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Very interesting read. Fall off the twid is new to me. Educational and helpful to many students for sure...Thank you..

    • shara63 profile image


      6 years ago from Delhi

      BlossomSB, i'm totally agree with 'lauramaryscott' and want to add that, 'not the food for thought only, but plays a gud appeitizer too...that aggravates the hunger to reading more and more and get some new informations to add my knowledge every time!...and for this, i'm really thankful to you!

    • teacherjoe52 profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi blossom.

      I have great fun getting students mixed up with him, her or he, she or his ,hers.

      I can get them very confused using the right one and we all have a good laugh. They always figure a way to get me back. That is one way to make classes fun and encourage them to talk. We are always playing tricks on each other. Sometimes the whole class will gang up on me. It usually takes two months before we can get to that level but our classes are rocking and the students look forward to classes. I always keep them on their toes because they never know what their naughty teacher is going to do next.

      A great article with good suggestions.

      God bless you.

    • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Frank Atanacio: That is great and I'm so glad that she is finding them useful, it's worth writing them when they help someone.

      lauramaryscott: Thank you for reading. It's interesting, isn't it, the way that we use language in so many different ways and never give it a thought, but it certainly makes it difficult for newcomers.

    • lauramaryscott profile image


      6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      BlossumBS, yes, your article is food for thought. Cleaver, interesting, and another delightful article to read. Thanks.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      6 years ago from Shelton

      blossoms I share these entries with someone who teaches ESL classes at the University and she found it useful thanks for sharing this too :) Frank


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