Bending Over Backward

Have you ever told a student she “dropped the ball” on an assignment? Do you encourage your students by telling them to “reach for the stars” or “go for the gold”? Your native English-speaking students likely understand what you mean when you use such figurative language, but the English Language Learners (ELLs) in your classrooms may be confused.

Figurative language is an element of the Common Core State Standards and many middle grades teachers will incorporate figures of speech and idioms into the curriculum. If you have ELL students in your classroom, it’s important to go that extra mile to ensure they understand language elements such as idioms and how to use them appropriately.

The following suggestions may help teach about idioms—phrases that have a different meaning from the dictionary definition of the individual words.

  • Introduce idioms in context. Don’t provide the idiom and the “definition.” Use idioms in sentences and help students determine the meaning based on the context.
  • Have students demonstrate correct use of idioms. Pair students and ask them to have a conversation that incorporates idioms. Ask them to “present” their conversation to the class so everyone can learn from each other.
  • Practice with games and activities. Worksheets and games can reinforce student comprehension of figurative language (see websites below).

Use real-life, authentic material students can relate to. Share examples of how idioms are used in movies, magazine articles, songs, and advertisements.

These websites can extend classroom lessons on idioms.

  • Using English: This database is rich with examples of idioms commonly used in English. The idioms are organized categorically so students and teachers can easily find idioms in areas such as animals, crime, food, politics, time, and character.
  • ESL Mania: This website provides opportunities for students to learn new idioms and to practice grammar skills. Students can even see how idioms are used in the news and in the business world. Download an iPhone app there.

When students understand and can use figurative speech such as idioms correctly, they are better able to enhance their oral and written language skills.

Melanie W. Greene is a professor in the middle grades program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.