Lessons & Classroom Games for Teachers

700 Idioms defined in context, and a sample short story - ESL lesson
By:Sally Jennings <bjenning@interchange.ubc.ca>

I am an ESL tutor with a BA in English (language) and extra courses in Lingusitics. I have developed a guide to 700 idioms, slang, and proverbs defined by using a short context statement for each one. The guide is free to read or print. Limited distribution is fine with me for use in your own classrooms, as long as my name and website name remains on it. Please do not sell it or repost it on the Internet. You may link to my page from yours if you wish (I would love to know if you do).

The link to the idiom guide is www.speak-read-write.com/idiom.html. It is in alphabetical order according to the first word of the phrase. It is searchable with your browser "find in page" button. Most of the entries use pronouns and occupational labels to avoid the ethnicity associated with proper names.

A sample of entries taken from the "f" section is:

a fact-finding mission

The diplomat went to the Middle East on a fact-finding mission.

a fait accompli

It is too late to change your mind, the order has been shipped. It is a fait accompli, an accomplished fact.

a fat cat

Some say that rich, privileged people are fat cats.

a feverish pace

They rushed to complete the highway before the deadline. They had been working at a feverish pace.

a fitting memorial

The sports scholarship fund was a fitting memorial to the famous athlete.

a flash in the pan

He didn't teach long at the little public school. He was just a flash in the pan.

a flat out lie /a flat out guess

She meant to deceive them, but they caught her, accusing her of a flat-out lie.

He didn't win the count-the-pennies contest through skill, he just made a flat-out guess.

a foregone conclusion

They predicted events would turn out like this. Everyone could see it coming. It was a foregone conclusion

A few suggestions for using the idioms (similar to the following examples) are included at the beginning of the guide.

Write a short story using several idioms. Ask the students to find the idioms and define them from the story. Can they provide one-word synonyms? For my sample short story, see another page at the site, www.speak-read-write.com/nightout.html.

You may download the idiom guide and reconfigure it, grouping the idioms into groups of ten or so for each lesson. How many can they still remember the next lesson?

You may also add context of your own, beefing up the entries with brand names, personal names, and details I did not feel free to experiment with in the public venue of the Internet.

You could ask your students to make up a story about the context found in the short statement with each idiom, fleshing it out with extra details. This gets their imaginations working and can be quite fun.

As a multicultural activity, your students may enjoy translating particularly concrete idioms from their own languages into English and comparing them with English idioms and idioms from other languages. This would work well with a mixed-origin language ESL class, at about the intermediate level or higher. It could also be very informative for you, the teacher.

You could also send students to hunt for idioms from newspaper articles, or books. In newspapers, the best sources are NOT Associated Press style news reports, since these are written to convey information unambiguously. The best sources are opinion pieces written by columnists, editorials, and letters to the editor.

At the core level, many idioms are part of a gestalt structure of metaphor in our language. You could ask the more advanced students if they can name parts of the structure (i.e. war + finances leads to the idioms "war on poverty" and "fighting inflation").

The list is not error free (I know, I wrote it), and is still a work in progress. It will be growing from time to time, so do check back. I hope you enjoy it and use it.

Sally Jennings

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