How to Teach Idioms to ESL Students

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

An idiom is a form of figurative language that can be especially difficult for English as a second language (ESL) students. In this lesson, teachers will learn about teaching idioms to non-native English speakers.

Teaching Idioms

Have you ever tried to teach idioms to your ESL students and found yourself biting off more than you could chew? After looking at your students' confused faces, you might have said, 'Well, I guess it's back to the drawing board.'

Idioms like 'biting off more than you can chew' and 'back to the drawing board' are figures of speech that are not meant to be taken literally, which can confuse ESL students because the phrases don't make sense when you break down the individual words. A student studying English might recognize these words: 'raining,' 'cats,' and 'dogs'; but when they are put together as an expression about the weather, all students hear is mumbo jumbo.

The key is to teach idioms explicitly. The only way for students to advance their English fluency and knowledge of colloquial expressions is to learn and practice them. By the end of this lesson, you'll see that teaching idioms to your ESL students is a piece of cake!


Try showing students pictures that illustrate idioms in a literal way, or better yet, have students draw the pictures themselves. Exploring the literal meanings can help students become familiar with how to use the phrases properly.

Consider the drawings students might create for the following idioms:

  • Hold your horses
  • It's raining cats and dogs
  • When pigs fly
  • You are what you eat
  • A chip on your shoulder
  • He lost his head
  • Let the cat out of the bag
  • Hit the books
  • Pulling your leg
  • On pins and needles


Have students work with a partner or in small groups to create funny dialogues centered around idioms. Students can take turns acting out their dialogues for the class. The following example shows conversational exchanges between a doctor and patient:

Doctor: Well, I see you're still alive and kicking.

Patient: Pardon me, sir? I am not kicking anyone!

Doctor: Just out of curiosity, does hypertension run in your family?

Patient: I don't have any family members named 'hypertension,' and we certainly don't run.

Doctor: Very well. You're fit as a fiddle!

Patient: What does a fiddle have to do with anything?


Idioms are common in many children's books. For example, the Amelia Bedelia series offers plenty of examples of the main character taking expressions literally, leading to hilarious outcomes. In Calling Doctor Amelia Bedelia, written by Herman Parish and illustrated by Lynn Sweat, after a patient claims that she has 'caught a bug,' Amelia instructs her to let it go.

Another series that helps students see the difference between literal and figurative language is the My _____ Likes to Say series, written by Denise Brennan-Nelson and illustrated by Jane Monroe Donovan. In one passage from My Teacher Likes to Say, the narrator recalls the teacher asking, 'Do you have ants in your pants?' and saying things like, 'Two heads are better than one.'

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