Teaching Idioms Like a Pro in 5 Easy Steps

By: Tutor Meagan

There’s a common misconception in the online English tutoring community that teaching idioms can be challenging.

But they’re actually a piece of cake. 😉

Sorry, I had to throw an idiom in there to get started! 

The truth is that I love teaching idioms to my ELL students. It’s always the funniest lesson with tons of belly laughs, raised eyebrows, and “no ways!” 

Although, in my time teaching, I’ve learned that there’s a wrong way of teaching idioms and a proper way. Learning the proper way to teach idioms will allow you to stand out in the sea of online English tutors, in a good way!

Today I’m going to turn you into the ultimate idiom teaching pro in just five easy steps, so you can become the best tutor possible.

A quick note before we get started:

Learning idioms is only appropriate for intermediate to advanced students. If you start teaching idioms to a beginner or lower intermediate student, they probably won’t have the foundations necessary to understand the concept fully. 

As you can imagine, when you’re learning a new language, it can get a little bit confusing if all of a sudden you are referring to cats and dogs while talking about the weather! 

Use your own discretion when introducing idioms to your students, and be sure to gauge their level before jumping into the deep end.

Here’s how to teach idioms like a pro in 5 easy steps: 

These steps are crucial to set yourself up for success as a tutor and to set your students up for success as English learners.

Let’s get started!

Step #1. Teach the Idioms in Context 

Providing the idioms in context allows the student to see exactly how the idiom is used in a real conversation. 

After all, students want to learn how to speak as fluently and naturally as possible, as a native speaker would!

I usually do this by showing the student a sample conversation using an idiom.

I usually type up a conversation myself, but you can also find countless resources online to help you out when you’re feeling stuck!

For example: 

Bob: Hey Jane! Can I talk to you about something that’s bothering me? 

Jane: Of course! I’m all ears! 

Using idioms in context helps the students to visualize how native English speakers use the idiom daily.

Step #2. Teach Idioms in Spoken Form Rather Than Written

Teaching students how to use idioms in speech is crucial because they are typically expressed only in speech and conversation. Teaching the student how to use the idiom in conversation is much more valuable than writing for this reason.

Idioms are mainly used in conversational English, meaning it’s unusual to find them in academic texts or professional writing. Teaching your students to understand this is important, so they avoid using idioms in an inappropriate setting outside of class. 

Stress that idioms are extremely informal to your students by explaining the concept to them in everyday English!

Step #3. Teach Idioms with Pictures 

Give the student a picture to understand the context! 

It’s raining cats and dogs!

This works best if you show an image that humorously illustrates the literal meaning of the idiom.

Using a funny photo that you can both laugh at opens up conversation and makes the student feel more at ease!

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable in a language lesson if you were laughing and joking with your tutor rather than taking things seriously at all times?

Idioms are full of colourful imagery, making them perfect for a flashcard or photo. Show the picture to your students and have them guess the meaning of the idiom.

Pro tip: Keep a folder full of photos related to idioms on your computer for quick access!

Step #4. Introduce the Idioms Slowly & in Themes When Teaching

Be sure to only focus on 5-10 idioms per class. If you introduce more than ten, you’re risking the student not remembering or fully understanding the idiom, so take it nice and slow and introduce them gradually! 

With teaching idioms slowly, you should categorize them into themes.

For example, you could start with teaching all idioms related to weather or to travel! That way, they can take in each theme and understand each situation where it is acceptable to use that idiom.

Step #5. Practice Teaching Idioms with Games!

I mean, who doesn’t love a good game!?  

With your student, decide on a fun game to play that will help with their comprehension, and help their nerves. 

Some games I love to play while teaching idioms are: 
  • Play a drawing game, such as Pictionary!
  • Find/create a worksheet where you have to match the photo to the idiom 
  • Hangman (I really love this one)
  • Use task cards

There are endless possibilities, and this keeps teaching idioms fun and light.

Teaching idioms is extremely fun when you are prepared for the lesson and when your student is at the correct level of English learning.

Follow these five steps next time you’re teaching idioms to your English students online and I guarantee that you will see some great results.

If you’d like to expand your knowledge and learn how to become a better tutor, check out this blog my friend Mike wrote about how to give corrections and feedback to your students!

No matter how experienced we are, there is always room to learn. 🥰

Tell me what steps you follow when teaching idioms in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you all.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Idioms Like a Pro in 5 Easy Steps

  1. There are learners that sometimes come to a session with a list of idiom phrases that they want to understand and to use in proper context. They want to know what they mean so they use them with family members or friends. Some of the phrases are not really idioms. Whatever the case, it’s always fun to discuss this type of content since the English language certainly contains many idioms. I think I’ll go take a nap now!

    1. Absolutely, Jeff! Sometimes it’s nice to just go with the flow and have a light-hearted lesson with our students.

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