Well, in typical British bank holiday form, it is indeed raining cats and dogs today! But I thought I would grab the bull by the horns, put pen to paper and write this post. These are just some of the fantastic idioms we have in the English language and that can cause real confusion for children with language difficulties.
Idioms are part of non-literal or figurative language along with similies and metaphors. Although these can be tricky and often need specifically teaching, they make our language more exciting and are needed to extend a child’s literacy skills. By Junior school (7-11 year olds), children should have some understanding of figurative language and be able to use a few examples. The more practise they have and the more examples they learn, the easier it will become. So let’s crack on and make a start!
- Before starting to teach idioms, I check that the child has an understanding of words with multiple meanings. For example orange – which can be a fruit or a colour. This is an easier introduction to the concept that words don’t always mean what you think and that you have to work out other possible meanings. You can read Helen’s post about that here.
- If you hear an idiom in context you are more likely to be able to work out the meaning, even if you haven’t heard it before. Rather than just asking a child what ‘hang on’ means, give them the idiom in context. For example “Mum is talking on the phone and you ask her a questions. She tells you to hang on” – what could she mean?
- Talk through a specific idiom and show the steps to how you can work them out. So in my example of it’s raining cats and dogs, hopefully we know that it is very unlikely for actual cats and dogs to come out of the sky (In very rare situations maybe fish, but never cats and dogs!). So we then have to think what the rain was really like. This is the harder jump, to think that it means the rain was heavy.
- If the child is finding it hard to work out what an idiom means, try giving them 2 or 3 options to choose from. Make sure one is a literal interpretation and one is the correct meaning. In this way you can show them how to rule out the literal meaning and find the correct answer. For example “You wanted to go out with your friend but they said they were feeling ‘under the weather'” Does this mean they are under a cloud or that they aren’t feeling well?
- If you are in a class or have a group of children, you could get them to act out the idiom. In this way they have to think about why someone is saying it, the situation and how it might be said. This well help their understanding of the idiom and also hopefully help them remember it.
- Either in class or at home you could have an ‘idiom of the week’. Pick one idiom and discuss it with the child. Maybe they could draw a picture of it and write down all the things they know about it. Then everybody has to try and use that idiom during the week.
- If you are feeling brave, you can search google images for an idiom. Now a quick health warning! Don’t do this with the child as you never know what sort of image might come up! But there are some great literal interpretations of many idioms out there. This can generate some great discussions. If I’m feeling blue, is my face bright blue? Does bite you tongue actually involve biting?
- As with learning any new skill, you could challenge the child to try and use a target idiom in context. Make sure they really understand the meaning and discuss situations where it would be appropriate to use it. Then get them to tell you about the situation they used it in and how it went.
- Another great way to reinforce new knowledge is to get the child to explain what they have learnt. Once you have taught some target idioms, revisit them and see if the child can explain what it means.
There are so many examples of idioms in English it can be hard to know where to start. Try and talk about examples as they arise, but below are some ideas to get you started.
– A penny for your thoughts. A way to ask what someone is thinking.
– An arm and a leg. To be very expensive or cost a lot of money.
– Back to the drawing board. When something fails it’s time to start again.
– Best thing since sliced bread. That something is a good invention or a good idea.
– Driving me up the wall. Annoying someone.
– Feeling under the weather. To feel a little ill.
– Feeling blue. To feel sad.
– Fishy. Something isn’t quite right or feels a little odd.
– Hang on. To wait.
– In hot water. To be in trouble.
– Let the cat out of the bag. To share information that was previously secret.
– Once in a blue moon. Happens very rarely.
– Piece of cake. An activity or task that is easy.
– Play it by ear. To improvise as you go – with no planning.
– Pull your socks up. To work harder.
– Slipped my mind. To forget.
I have just finished a figurative language poetry book that also has an activity guide. It was written for this same reason. I would like to suggest it as a possible teaching source as well. It is listed on amazon “Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Figurative Language Poems”. It was written in side by side English and Spanish.