I took the DELTA Module 1 exam two and a half years ago. When I got to paper 2-task 3 , I remember writing at least two pages on the topic! The questions were (I don’t remember them verbatim but something like that):

What are the benefits of teaching idioms?

What problems are students likely to have when learning idioms

Our tutor agreed that it was quite a tough topic. I managed to make  17 points but unfortunately, I only remembered 15 of them when I tried to take notes after I’d finished. I thought I’d share them here, hope you find them useful.

So, without further ado, here they are:

Why teach idioms

1. English is a highly idiomatic language. Native speakers often use a lot of idioms, therefore learners would benefit from knowing a basic set in order to be able to follow the conversation, when in contact with NS.

2. In many authentic materials, such as newspaper or magazine articles, as well as songs, we often encounter idioms which might confuse students, unless they are familiar with them. Learners would therefore benefit from receptive knowledge of a set of idioms if they are exposed to authentic materials daily.

3. The satisfaction and sense of achievement students may derive from being able to understand idiomatic language in speech or written materials might make them believe they have taken their English to the next level. This is likely to increase their motivation and make a positive impact on their studies. (The Affective Filter Hypothesis, Krashen)

4. Being able to use idioms in their speech, might help students sound more fluent and more “local”, which is important when they want to integrate in the L2 society.

5. Item learning helps students develop their   phrasal lexicon, as words are not stored individually but in combination with other words and can often express different meanings (Lewis, Implementing the Lexical Approach).

6. Idioms can help  advanced learners, who have mastered English to a very high level and wish to take that extra step towards fluency and native speaker competence.

Problems students may have with idioms

  1. The meaning of an idiom cannot always be conveyed/inferred through the literal meaning of all the  words in it. There is usually  history/etymology behind them. 
  2. When the teacher explains an idiom (but does not know the origin), theorists (Honey and Mumford)  might ask why and might not be satisfied with an answer such as : it is a fixed expression. So they might lose faith in the teacher.
  3. The number of idioms is huge and learners can never simply learn all of them. Neither will teachers ever be able to cover all of them in class.
  4. Young learners may not be mature enough to understand or use idioms in their speech.
  5. Cultural problems. Some idioms in English might be offensive to a speaker of another language. Students might be reluctant to use idioms that sound rude or inappropriate to them, if they refer to religion, nationality stereotypes, etc.
  6. Students might be learning English as Lingua Franca and therefore have no contact with native speakers. Idioms might be of no use to them, so they might consider the lesson a waste of time or money.
  7. Some idioms have a structure that might confuse lower level learners, inducing mistakes in their speech. For example : cat got your tongue? Learners might repeat the ellipsis of the operator did when forming questions.
  8. Students might become  obsessed with using idioms in order to sound native -like , to the point that they try too hard to use them, focus on accuracy and over-use the monitor at the expense of fluency (monitor over-users, Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis theory).
  9. Learners might have similar idioms in L1 and try to translate them in L2, thus making mistakes and sounding clumsy. E.g Greek learners can say many words are poor instead of talk is cheap.

Final notes

I didn’t mention that teachers can use idioms to also highlight features of connected speech, which was probably the easiest point to come up with.. Oh well, it was a very stressful moment…

Looking at my answers now, it looks like I came up with more disadvantages than advantages, which is funny because I’ve always been in favour of teaching idioms. Hm.. food for thought!

Sue Swift also did some research into figurative language in general and wrote this article for the ELT Notebook.

You’re welcome to add your ideas in the comments!

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This work by Rachel Tsateri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.