On the road to comprehension, idioms are speed bumps. When we talk about reading comprehension gaps (to toss in another metaphor), I believe idioms are THE MISSING LINK. No matter how you slice them (I can’t help myself), idioms are essential to lucid comprehension. This section explains why and how you can help your students boost their Idiom Power.
Look at this example:
“Because my participation in the stock market had cost me an arm and a leg, I decided to invest in real estate instead.”
The syntax in this sentence is a somewhat complex and the vocabulary is somewhat challenging, but let’s say you could break the clauses apart and find synonyms for “participation” and “invest.” If you’d been listening to the news lately, “stock market” and “real estate” would not be unfamiliar terms, even if you didn’t know much about them. You could probably paraphrase MOST of the sentence. But not the idiom. You’d have to SLOW DOWN and DRAW AN INFERENCE ABOUT THE IDIOM. And while you might know the literal meanings of “cost,” “me” “an arm” “and” and “a leg,” you might not grasp what they meant when bundled together.
“How hard could it be?” you ask. I have sat in a 7th-grade classroom where students could not explain “go out on a limb.” And there was a tree visible through the window.
We assume that everyone knows these “simple” expressions. While the words in an idiom might be short, if you haven’t ever heard a particular idiom, it’s not so simple. And if English is not your first language, you are less likely to have heard common idioms. So when people use them, you don’t understand what they’re saying. And if they’re telling a joke, you don’t get it. That’s frustrating.
Why don’t our students know more about idioms? English teachers tend to teach figurative language exclusively in the context of poetry and fiction, emphasizing metaphors and similes only in those genres. But the truth is that idioms, figurative uses of language, also appear in nonfiction—in newspapers and magazines and everyday conversation.
Students who struggle to speak standard English (whether English is their first language or not) will not recognize or comprehend STANDARD ENGLISH IDIOMS. So we need to teach BOTH the idioms AND strategies for figuring them out.
Here's a funny YouTube video that illustrates how idioms work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITnX68RXccY&app=desktop (Thanks to Virginia Woolley for this lead!)
Here is a simple graphic organizer you can use as a Do Now to boost Idiom Power:
|Here is the IDIOM.
|DRAW a picture of the idiom.
|PARAPHRASE: What does it say, literally?
|DRAW AN INFERENCE: What does this expression really mean? What's the message?
|“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
|[Pretend there’s a picture here.]
|Having a bird in your hand is equal to having two in a nearby hedge/tree.
|It’s better to have a little bit of something than to have none of it and only hope you can get more.
|This homework was only “a drop in the bucket” compared to all of the work you’ll be assigned this semester.
Here are links to two Websites that will help you teach idioms:
For more information about reading comprehension and the importance of idioms, go to Comprehension 101.