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Speech-Language Pathology Corner: Playing with Idioms

by:   Rachel Lynette
Teaching idioms can be more fun than a barrel of monkeys or it can be about as interesting as watching paint dry. I am always a little sad when I see an idiom worksheet, because I think there are so many better ways to teach this fun and intriguing concept.  To me, it is fascinating that a group of words that seems to mean one thing actually means something completely different. I also love how many idioms sound silly or make absolutely no sense unless you know the meaning.  Consider the idiom,  “I’m all ears.” If you know the real meaning, you probably picture a person listening intently. If you don’t, an image of a person covered in ears may come to mind; a funny image for most kids, which brings me to the first idea in this post:
Contrast the literal meaning with the actual meaning
There are many ways to do this and some idioms work better than others. You may want to gather a list of idioms that lend themselves to interesting or humorous literal interpretations. Once you have your list, here are a couple of thing to try:

  • Have students illustrate what an idiom seems to mean and then write what it actually does mean. Idioms such as “You’re pulling my leg,” and “When pigs fly,” make terrific illustrations. Consider making large ones as posters or creating a class book with a page from each student. Another option is to do a long-term project with each child creating his or her own idiom book.
  • Act it out: Put some carefully chosen idioms into a hat and have a student (or students) draw one and act out the literal meaning. Be sure to explain that overacting will enhance the activity. For example, imagine a pair of students acting out, “letting the cat out of the bag.” After the correct idiom has been guessed, discuss the actual meaning .

Dig a little deeper
When working with idioms a natural question to ask is, “how is the idiom related to what it means?” Asking students to explain idioms is a great way to go a little deeper. For example, the idiom, “don’t cry over spilt milk,” is a good one to start with because the connection is not too hard to see. Most people don’t cry over spilt milk because it is not a big problem.  From there you could talk about other small problems and possibly create some idioms of your own, “Don’t cry over a broken pencil,” or “Don’t cry because you dropped your books.” Because so many idioms deal with aspects of behavior, this could serve double duty as a lesson about attitude and behavior as well.
Older students may enjoy finding out the origins of common idioms. Why do we say, that something good is, “the cat’s pajamas”? Digging into idioms not only gives them more meaning, but can also result in an interesting history lesson (about the 1920s in the case of the cat’s pajamas).
Use them
Students will feel more comfortable with idioms if they use them in normal conversation. Try some of these ideas:

  • Have an Idiom of the Week. Post the idiom in a prominent place and challenge students to use it as much as they can during that week.
  • For one day, have students track their idioms. One way to do this is to have each student wear a 2 inch strip of paper around her wrist like a bracelet. Whenever the student catches herself using an idiom, she makes a small tear along one edge. At the end of the day count the tears for a total. Be sure to emphasize that students should not try to use idioms. They are simply tracking the ones the use naturally. They may be surprised at how many idioms they use!
  • Ask students to write a story using as many idioms as possible. You may want to post a large list for students to draw on for this activity.

One final thought. When thinking about teaching idioms to students with special needs (especially those that tend to take everything literally or have social skill challenges), it occurs to me that there is a lesson that goes deeper than the words on the page. Idioms are a concrete way to show that the words that people say are not always a reflection of what they mean. Talking about idioms could be an intriguing way to introduce a lesson on about how you sometimes can’t just listen to a person’s words to really understand what he or she means.
Featured Contributor and Blog:  Rachel Lynette and Minds in Bloom
Rachel Lynette is a former GT teacher and is currently the author of Minds in Bloom, a blog devoted to facilitating creative and critical thinking skills in children. She has also written over 100 nonfiction books for children as well as many resources for teachers. You can find her teaching resources in her Teachers Pay Teachers store.

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