Teaching Tips: Discussing Idioms in the Classroom

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.”

~Carl Sandberg (1878-1967), American poet and historian


Idioms, or phrases that have their own meaning relative to their specific conjunction of words, are a unique feature of language that can be difficult for beginners to make sense of. Here are some common examples of American idioms:

  • You must be pulling my leg.
  • That’s the last time I stick my neck out for that guy.
  • She really jumped down my throat after I admitted I broke her tennis racket.
  • I’ve got to hand it to you; you did a terrific job on that presentation.
  • My uncle is hard of hearing so I practically shout when I talk to him.


It is important to explain to your students the concept and uses of idioms, as slang, street talk, casual speech, etc. as well as the difference between a literal expression and a metaphoric or figurative expression. Ask your students to name places where they are likely to encounter idioms. Explain where idioms are not used, such as in formal writing.  If you have willing students, you can even act these expressions out. For example, you can ask, if I say I’m pulling your leg, am I actually pulling on your leg? Is this expression literal or figurative?

Go through all of the idioms with similar questions: If your boss was angry and yelled at you, did she literally jump down your throat? While snakes can swallow whole animals, human beings cannot. These examples should illustrate for your students the crucial skills for defining and understanding idioms.

Want to learn more? Check out the Studying English chapter from Compelling American Conversations, available here with additional commentary from the Teacher Edition!


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  1. As a teacher who loves his job Idioms are really hard to explain to those who’se English language was their secondary language for a long time.
    I usually try to make it fun while keeping the students focused on the topic as we discuss together and try some them.
    BTW great article. great tips. Noted.

  2. Thank you, Jerome, for sharing your experiences teaching idioms and commenting on our blog.

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