Teaching English-language Idioms

A thematic approach

Idioms are an indispensable dimension of language teaching; they are the street shoes and the house slippers of conversational English. However, idioms pose special challenges for language teachers:

  1. Idioms must be added to the vocabulary stock just as any other new vocabulary; their constituent words may look familiar, but their meanings are, well, idiomatic.

  2. Idioms are generally more durable and universal within a language than jargon, slang, or colloquialisms, but nevertheless are sensitive to questions of register and social situation. In addition, the line between slang and idioms is not rigid. Textbooks that sample published literary or journalistic sources may not be adequate resources for teaching idioms.

Native speakers may have certain advantages in dealing with the second set of challenges; we can draw on life experience as well as a range of convenient sources that we can easily import. However, for this very reason, we must be especially sensitive to challenge no. 1, the student’s additional burden of adding idioms to his or her vocabulary stock.

Whenever we’re with our students, we have opportunities to acquaint them with contemporary American English—it’s what comes out of our mouth, and of course it forms the substance of the language samples we use in the classroom. However, it’s unfair to simply to unload long, indiscriminate lists of idioms upon students, even when those lists are embedded in interesting vehicles—dialogues, film scripts, television clips, popular songs. The idioms themselves may be colorful, expressive, and fascinating, but without some logic to our delivery, it’s unlikely that students will retain more than a small fraction of them for later use. How then should we select, organize, and convey the specific idioms that might be most useful to our students?

In the past, I have used the traditional methods of organizing idioms for instructional delivery:

  1. Textual commentary, appended to the language sample. For example, the literary excerpts in the textbooks edited by V.D. Arakin1 are followed by commentaries explaining the idiomatic usages included in the excerpts. (Note: these commentaries are not always accurate.) The student’s ability to remember the idiom may depend upon the student’s judgment of the value of that idiom, based on several factors: its expressive power in context, the instructor’s advice concerning the value and currency of that idiom in contemporary English, and perhaps the existence of an equally vivid Russian-language analogue. (Thus, “geek” has an approximate equivalent, “ботаник”.)

  2. Grammatically-organized lists of idioms, accompanied by exercises. For example, I have used Kenneth Beare’s phrasal verb lists and exercises, available from his ESL Web site2, organized into topics, presented with examples of good contemporary usage. His site also provides action verb idioms, modal verb idioms, and so on.

  3. Idioms organized by social occasion. One of the most accurate and natural books of idiomatic English organized in this way is Tillitt and Bruder’s Speaking Naturally: Communication Skills in American English3. The categories are traditional—“introductions and address systems,” “invitations,” “thanking people and replying to thanks,” “expressing anger and resolving conflict,” and so on—but the phrases and usages, sorted by level of formality, are wonderfully fresh and accurate, all the way from “I couldn’t agree more” to “you’re dead wrong!”

Based on my experience at the New Humanitarian Institute, I would like to add a fourth organizing principle for instruction in conversational idioms, an approach based on audience-centered themes. By “themes” I mean going beyond static categories based on social occasion, such as those in Speaking Naturally. I prefer to choose themes based on emotional or developmental issues in the lives of young people and young adults. My hope is that the immediacy of such themes in the lives of students may add to their ability to acquire and deploy the idioms I’m teaching them.

I first began to think about the value of emotional and developmental themes in instruction when I was reading David I. Smith’s and Barbara Carvill’s excellent book on language instruction, The Gift of the Stranger.4 The authors challenge instructors to clarify (1) the motivation of foreign language instruction; and (2) the whole-life influence they desire to have on their students. Often foreign language instruction is marketed as a way to be a more effective businessperson, persuader, tourist, connoisseur—all ways of enhancing the learner with little regard for the value of the target culture, or even for the value of the learner to the target culture. Smith and Carvill ask us to consider, instead, what kind of people our students will become, and what kind of relationship with the target culture we are preparing them for.5 They advocate helping our students become “gracious hosts” and “sensitive strangers,” with “spacious hearts” capable of recognizing boundaries and differences as well as our essential common humanity.

Having read Smith and Carvill, I was more determined than ever to create classroom experiences that reveal points of emotional contact between Russian students and their English-speaking counterparts whom we, after all, know well. (Our own sons are young adults, approximately the same age as our NGI students.) For this reason, I began to choose texts and audio-visual resources with idioms and usages that spring from themes common to these age groups. In the process, I have no desire to pretend that our lives across cultural lines are exactly the same, but simply to use the similarities that do exist to reinforce the presentation of idioms related to those themes.


For the absolutely crucial theme of trust and relationship-building, I chose a novel, Good Grief, by Lolly Winston6, in which Sophie, a 39-year-old recent widow, is rebuilding her shattered life. Through an adult mentorship program (Big Brothers/Big Sisters), she “adopts” a troubled teenager, Crystal, and gradually learns that the girl is suffering from depression. At the same time, she is tentatively dipping her toes back into the world of men and dating. With its utterly natural voice, the book is almost ideal for teaching idiomatic American English through the theme of trust and relationships. Among the excerpts I have prepared is this one, a conversation between Sophie and her “little sister,” Crystal:

I notice that the cuffs of [Crystal’s] sleeves are caked with something reddish brown. Blood? Food or dirt, I hope.

Crystal, will you show me your arm? It worries me.”

Okay.” But she doesn't move.

I reach across the table and wrap a hand around her wrist. With my other hand, I push up her sleeve, then turn over her arm. The soft white underside is slashed with crisscrosses of cuts, raised like argyle. Her skin feels hot and jagged. Crystal sucks in her breath, blinks.

What happened here?” I feel my pulse race but try not to seem alarmed. Some of the wounds are fresh, congealed blood at their edges.

Crystal jerks her arm away and yanks down her sleeve. Her shoulders curl into a hunch.

I move my plate aside and fight to maintain the same even calm I kept when Ethan's skin was as gray as oatmeal and he was too weak to climb the stairs. You don't want a sick person to see in your expression or hear in your voice how frightened you are for them.

Crystal bites her lower lip.

Did you do that on purpose? Like the burns?”

She rolls her eyes. “Duh.”

I see.”

Can I smoke?”7

In this excerpt, and in others I have used, the theme of trust is central—both to the choice of idioms for instructional focus, and to the larger issues we discuss in the classroom.

I have also written my own conversations for use in class, featuring two young adults, Sam and Vicki, who are gradually getting to know each other. Here’s part of an exchange from the dialogue I entitled “Are we compatible?”:

Vicki:       [After Sam mentions being hungry enough to eat a horse.] Not so fast. I only promised coffee. But if you really want something to eat, we could go to my house. We’d have to wing it; I don’t have much in the refrigerator, but I’m sure I could whip something up.

Sam:        I’m up for that! But, I can’t help wondering: Why don’t you ever want to go out? I’ll pay, at least sometimes. I just love being served, and best of all, they do the dishes.

Vicki:       I know, you never struck me as the stingy type. But to tell you the truth, I resent restaurant prices, even when I’m not the one paying. For the price of one good meal, you could buy a week’s worth of groceries.

Sam:        You have a point. This coffeehouse charges $10 for a little sandwich and potato chips. And that’s not counting the coffee. A capuccino sets you back another three fifty. No veggies, no dessert. And that place next door, two people can expect to fork over $70—wine not included!

Vicki:       See, I’m a cheap date. I supply the food and even do the cooking. Of course, if you offer to do the dishes, I won’t get in your way. In fact, I’ll be right there with you—drying as you wash.

Sam:        I actually don’t mind washing dishes. In stark contrast to my day job, when you wash dishes you actually see progress!

Vicki:       Totally. And the best part about eating at home is . . . we can say anything we want and nobody will be sitting behind us to eavesdrop and take offense. We can gossip to our hearts’ content.

Sam and Vicki also appear in “An election day conversation,” a dialogue I wrote at the time of the State Duma election in December 2007. Here, the theme of relationship-building is supplemented by another theme, the development of civic consciousness. A sample:

Vicki:       It's the principle of the thing. If enough people don't get into the habit of doing the right thing every time, we can totally kiss democracy goodbye. The party machines will run everything.

Sam:       What do you mean, “the machines”?

Vicki:      You know, the politicians, their paid helpers, their fan clubs. The people who who show up at party meetings, who work the phone banks, who go door-to-door....

Sam:       What's wrong with that? If they care, let them care. They're all the same, anyway.

Vicki:       How do you know they're all the same? You're just letting the crowd think for you. It's not necessarily smart to assume the worst, but it sure is easy.

In each of these examples, the texts are accompanied by annotations explaining the idioms, but the most important element of the lesson is classroom discussion to highlight the thematic links with the students’ own lives.

Finally, a theme that has resonated deeply with my students is the theme of “the other.” Coming from an American context, I’ve often linked “the other” with texts and audio-visual resources relating to the American struggle with racism. One important example is a session I have built around a 1957 television interview with Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly after he gained international fame by leading the boycott of the segregated city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to King’s superb command of English rhetoric, students benefit from learning idioms that we could subsequently use or adapt in discussions about groups we often learn to regard with suspicion or fear. This is one discussion that usually threatens to go beyond the time alloted to it. Here are just a few of the interview phrases we tackled: 

the cup of endurance had run over
[our purpose was] not to put the bus company out of business but to put justice in business
a false sense of inferiority, a false sense of superiority
do you subscribe to that judgment...?
an all-too-prevalent fallacy
noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good
to indulge in a superficial optimism
neither party can boast of having clean hands in this area
making a political football out of the civil rights situation
the folkways of white supremacy
the rolling tide of world opinion

In this case, the original material had few obvious connections with students’ daily lives; my task was to make the connections, mainly by drawing parallels out from the students themselves. It was students who volunteered parallels: ex-convicts living near them, immigrants, and Roma people. I was frankly very proud of their willingness to examine this powerful and risky theme of “the other,” a theme that directly relates to my core concern for language instruction: What kind of people our students will become, and what kind of relationship with the target culture we are preparing them for.

1 Аракин, В.Д. и др., Практический курс английского языка, с I по V курс.  М., изд. Владос, 2007.

3 Bruce Tillitt and Mary Newton Bruder, Speaking Naturally: Communication Skills in American English. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

4 David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning. Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.

5 Smith and Carvill, p. 107.

6 Lolly Winston, Good Grief. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2004.

7 Winston, p. 191.

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