By Nada Salem Abisamra

What is an Idiom?
Why Teach Idioms?
Outline of Cooper's paper "Teaching Idioms"
Implications & Exercises for Teaching Idioms
Useful Links

Group for Discussions on Facebook: Nada's ESL Island.(Join us there! Post your questions)

What is an

An idiom is "an expression whose meaning cannot be predicted from the
usual meanings of its constituent elements."
Webster's Dictionary

"An idiom can have a literal meaning, but its alternate, figurative meaning
must be understood metaphorically."
T.C. Cooper

"A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or
       cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on."

"An idiom is a conventionalized expression whose meaning cannot
be determined from the meaning of its parts.
... Idioms differ from other figurative expressions,
such as similes and metaphors, in that they have conventionalized meanings."
Irujo (1986)



Native speakers of a language use idioms all the time.
Idioms are the grease that makes language flow.
Students are often embarrassed and frustrated if they can't understand the idioms a person is using.
In some cases, misunderstanding can lead  to disaster.
Communication is everything!

A strong knowledge of idioms will help students to be better speakers and negotiators.
And they will be in a much better position to take advantage of the
opportunities that come their way.

"The sheer number of idioms and their high frequency in discourse make them
an important aspect of vocabulary acquisition and language learning in general..."
Fernando, 1996

"Since idiomatic expressions are so frequently encountered in both spoken and
written discourse, they require special attention in language programs
and should not be relegated to a position of secondary importance in the curriculum."
Cooper, 1998

by Thomas C. Cooper - 1998
The University of Georgia, Athens

" Idiom Acquisition Research has uncovered a number of findings that have pedagogical implications for idiom instruction. This article summarizes these research findings and presents the language teacher with a Systematic Plan for Teaching Idioms to: 1- Introduction:

Nonliteral / Figurative Language: "These forms of language are difficult to understand and learn because they do not mean what they literally state."

  • Metaphor: "A nonliteral usage of words in which one element, the topic, is compared to another, the vehicle, based on one or more shared features." (Nippold & Fey, 1983) => implicit comparison of one thing to another.
  • Simile: The comparison is explicitly stated by the use of "like" or "as"
  • Proverb: It also uses words figuratively, but the comparison is less obvious than in metaphors and similes. In addition, proverbs contain elements of folk wisdom, for we are advised (not) to follow a certain course of action.
  • Idiom: An expression whose meaning cannot be predicted from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.
2- Frequency of Idioms:

Of the 4 kinds of nonliteral expressions, IDIOMS are the most frequently encountered in discourse.

Frequency of use:

3- How we Process Idioms: Three Hypotheses

3.1- The literal first hypothesis.(Cronk & Schweigert, 1992)
There are two modes of idiom processing:
The active mode: it processes the literal meaning
The inactive mode: it processes the figurative meaning and only becomes active when the literal interpretation is inappropriate in the context.
3.2- The simultaneous processing hypothesis
The literal and figurative meanings are processed at the same time.
3.3- The direct access hypothesis (Gibbs, 1986)
The figurative meaning is retrieved directly from the mental lexicon.

4- Research on Idioms:

Studies looking into the merits of each of the above-mentioned hypotheses have investigated some of the variables affecting idiom learning and comprehension:

4.1- Age of Learner

Children interpret idioms literally until the age of nine.
=> Piaget's theory of cognitive development (abstract thinking with maturity)
4.2- Use of figurative language by teachers
The more language teachers use figurative language in classroom discourse, the better children master idiom interpretation.
4.3- Characteristics of idioms
People acquire more easily the idioms that are syntactically frozen and those whose literal meaning is close to their figurative one.

Gibbs, 1987:

  • Syntactically Frozen Idioms: cannot be syntactically transformed into the passive and still retain their figurative meaning.
    • These idioms are learned more quickly because heard more frequently in only one syntactic form.
  • Syntactically Flexible Idioms: retain their figurative meaning even if transformed into the passive.
  • Transparent idioms: close relationship between literal and figurative meanings.
  • Opaque idioms: obscure relationship between literal and figurative meanings.
4.4- Role of context
For learners of all ages, the comprehension of the idiomatic expressions is facilitated by contextual support. (Cacciari and Levorato, 1989; Nippold and Martin, 1989)
4.5- Grouping idioms according to theme
Idioms can be grouped according to the main words they contain:
  • verbs
  • nouns
Idioms can be grouped according to their underlying metaphorical themes.
e.g., Time is money, argument is war ...
4.6- Second language learners
Idioms are problematic for EFL and ESL learners.

Irujo, 1986: She conducted a study to determine whether advanced learners of English use knowledge of their first language to comprehend and produce second language idioms.
=> She created 3 lists of English idioms:

  • Identical idioms => easiest to understand and produce
  • Similar idioms
  • Different idioms => hardest to understand and produce.

SUMMARY of Research Findings:

  1. Understanding idioms figuratively begins around the age of nine.
  2. Syntactically frozen idioms are easier to learn than syntactically flexible idioms.
  3. Idioms whose meanings are figuratively transparent are easier to learn than those with opaque meanings.
  4. Idioms are easier to understand if given contextual support.
  5. Many idioms can be categorized.
  6. Idioms are difficult for second language learners.
  7. SL learners make use of their native language when processing target language idioms.

5- Teaching Idioms:

The theory of multiple intelligences provides a useful framework for teaching idioms.
Of course, the linguistic intelligence is the one teachers and learners work with most.
6- Teaching Suggestions:
6.1- Choosing Idioms
A- Choose idioms that are frequently encountered in TL (Target
B- Choose expressions that do not present special problems with vocabulary and grammar.
C- Choose expressions with transparent figurative meanings.
D- Teach First: Identical Idioms (in L1 and L2)
     Teach Second: Similar Idioms
     Teach Last: Dissimilar Idioms
6.2- Discussing Idioms
Lead a discussion about figurative language including metaphors, similes, and idioms in order to show the students why they are used in speech and writing.
6.3- Defining Idioms
Choose a few idioms carefully and define them, then present them within the larger context of a short paragraph or dialogue.
Contrast the literal and figurative meanings and show how they are related.

Effective techniques to use:

  • Situational vignettes: sketch a setting that will elicit responses in the slang, colloquial, and formal or standard speech registers.

  • Themes that could be used: getting someone's attention, reassuring a friend, asking for money, expressing anger...

    Example: To calm someone down
    - Chill out (slang)
    - Take it easy (colloquial)
    - Don't worry about it; everything will be all right. (standard)

  • Dialogues: demonstrate the relationship between the social situation and appropriate language choice.
6.4- Dividing Idioms into Categories
Dividing idioms into thematic categories will make them easier to learn.

Examples of categories:

  • Body parts (the eye, the finger...)
  • Animals
  • Idioms expressing emotions (anger, happiness, ...)
6.5- Drawing Idioms
Drawing idioms is effective for showing the contrast between the literal and figurative meanings.
6.6- Dramatizing Idioms
Act them out to compare in a humorous way literal and figurative meanings of idioms.
Another activity: Charades.
Act out the literal meaning of an expression and the class must guess the figurative meaning.
6.7- Retelling Exercise
The teacher tells a story containing several idioms and the students have to retell it or write it down trying to use as many of the expressions as they can.
6.8- Add-on Story
Write a list of idioms on the board and start the narrative by using one of the idioms. Students have to add to the story by each contributing one sentence containing a new expression.
6.9- Discuss Idioms from Newspaper Comic Strips
Students select a comic strip that uses idiomatic language from a Sunday newspaper. List idioms on the board and discuss them.
6.10- Idioms in Cartoons
Collect cartoons and discuss the idioms in them.
6.11- Idioms from TV Shows
Compile idioms from TV shows (Sit-coms are a good source), view in class and discuss.
6.12- Paragraph Completion
Omit the idiom in context from a paragraph and have students complete the passage with a phrase that fits the context, then give the omitted idiom => students will see how they have inferred the idiom's meaning from the context. (Irujo, 1986)
6.13- Interview Classmates
Interview native speaker classmates and collect a list of idioms used.
6.14- Idiom-of-the-Day Mobile
Set aside classroom space to post idioms students collect.
6.15- Idiom Board Game
Students create a board game that tests their knowledge of idiomatic expressions.
6.16- Idiom Jazz Chants
Practice idioms through music. Students can create chants.
7- Conclusion:
It is very important to have a plan of instruction that incorporates the various intelligences in order to give a chance to all students to succeed in learning idioms.

Using idioms appropriately in oral and written discourse generates confidence in the student and respect in those with whom he/she comes in contact.

Implications & Exercises.
For Teaching Idioms
Implications for Teaching Idioms:.(Irujo, 1986)

- Infrequent, highly colloquial idioms with difficult vocabulary should be avoided.

- Activities which compare literal and figurative meanings of idioms help students to realize the absurdity of the literal meanings and provide a link from the literal words to the nonliteral meaning.
ex) Matching pictures showing literal and idiomatic meanings of an idiom, drawing or acting out literal meanings, making up stories or dialogues in which the literal use of an idiom creates a misunderstanding or a humorous situation. Activities of this type would be particularly useful with idioms which have no first language equivalent or a totally different one.

- Activities which encourage production of idioms can be based on lists of idioms collected by the students or supplied by the teacher. These lists should include idioms which are similar in the first and second languages and are therefore likely to cause interference.


Fun With Idioms in ESOL

MATCHING EXERCISE + Key by Bibi Baxter (scroll down)

Matching exercises + Key: Mouth idioms, Heaven and hell idioms, Black and white idioms.

April Fool's Day: Spot the Mistake

Pictorial Idioms

Matching Quiz of Commonly-Heard Proverbs

Cobuild Idiom of the Day

The Monthly Idiom

Phrasal Verbs Exercises by Nada AbiSamra

Phrasal Verbs (you need shockwave)

Commonly-Used Proverbs

Self-Study Idiom Quizzes

ESL- Idioms-

Advanced level ESL/EFL vocabulary exercises


Idioms on Handouts

Idioms in the Headlines

Annotated List Idioms Websites

A Range of ESL Exercises By Bibi Boarder

"Collocation" by Jimmie Hill

English Idioms Sayings and Slang
Wayne Magnuson

ESL : Idioms and Slang

IdioMagic 2002
The Best Software Program for Learning Idioms and Slang

Idioms Resource Page + Quizzes



Processing of Idioms in L2 Learners of English

Self-Study Idiom Quizzes *****

English Idioms & Quizzes



Cacciari, C. and M.C. Levorato (1989), `How children understand idioms in discourse.' Journal of Child Language, 16: 387-405.

Cooper, T.C. (1998), "Teaching Idioms", Foreign Language Annals, 31, 2, 255-266.

Fernando, Chitra (1996), "Idioms and Idiomaticity." Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gibbs, R. W. (1986), "Skating on thin ice: Literal meaning and understanding idioms in conversation." Discourse Processes, 9(1), 17-30.

Gibbs, R. W. (1987), "Linguistic Factors in Children's Understanding of Idioms." Journal of Child Language, 14, 569-586.

Gibbs, R.W. (1992), "What do idioms really mean?" Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 485-506.

Irujo, S. (1986a), "Donít put your leg in your mouth: transfer in the acquisition of idioms in a second language", TESOL Quarterly, 20, 287-304

Irujo, S. (1986b), "A Piece of Cake: Learning and Teaching Idioms." ELT Journal. 40,  3, 236-242.

Irujo, S. (1993), "Steering Clear: Avoidance in the Production of Idioms." IRAL.  31, 3,  205-219.

Nippold, M. A., & Martin, S.T. (1989), "Idiom interpretation in isolation versus context: A developmental study with adolescents." Journal Speech and Hearing Research, 32, 59-66.

Nippold, M. A. (1991), "Evaluating and enhancing idiom comprehension in language- disordered students." Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 22, 100-106.

Pollio, H. R.; Barlow, J. M.; Fine, H. J. & Pollio, M. R. (1977), "Psychology and the Poetics of Growth." Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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