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Learning Idioms in ESL

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help ESL students learn the meanings of some common English language idioms?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, small groups of ESL students will use the Visual Thesaurus to assist them in figuring out the meanings of some common English language idioms. Students will then create visual images to present their assigned idioms to the class-demonstrating how idioms can be interpreted both figuratively and literally.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. learn the definition of "idiom"
  2. analyze the meanings of some common English language idioms
  3. synthesize their knowledge of idioms by presenting literal and figurative interpretations of some idioms through visual images


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • five small slips of paper or index cards (each with a list of three English language idioms written on it)
  • markers (enough for five small groups)
  • sheets of large drawing paper or poster board (enough for each small group to receive three sheets)

Warm Up:

Brainstorming idioms in students' home languages:
  • Before class, display or write the following VT definition of "idiom" on the board: "an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up."
  • As students enter the classroom, ask them to read the definition on the board and to brainstorm a list of idioms in their home languages. If students have difficulty understanding the displayed definition of "idiom," further explain that it is a group of words that has a meaning that is different than the meanings of the individual words themselves. For example, if an English speaker says that someone has "kicked the bucket," he or she means that someone has died.
    (*Note: You could also pair ESL students who speak the same home language together to come up with a sample idiom in their language.)
  • Invite a few students to share some idioms from their home languages with the class and then discuss how an idiom's literal meaning can be quite different from its figurative or "true" meaning.


Analyzing some English language idioms by using the Visual Thesaurus:
  • Organize the class into five small groups and give each group a slip of paper or index card with a list of three idioms written on it (see the idiom page for a suggested list of idioms that can all be deciphered by using the VT).
    (*Note: If you are using this lesson with younger ESL students or with struggling ESL students, you could allow each group to choose just one of the idioms on its assigned list of three.)
  • Explain to the class that it is sometimes easier to remember words, phrases or expressions if they are grouped together in categories; therefore, each group is going to be responsible for teaching the rest of the class a category of idioms (i.e., color idioms, body idioms, weather idioms, animal idioms, or eating idioms).
  • Direct groups to use the Visual Thesaurus to assist them in figuring out the intended meaning of their idioms. Explain that some of the idioms' meanings will appear as a VT word web by simply typing in the expression into the search box and pressing "LOOK IT UP" (e.g., "fed up"). However, finding the meanings of other idioms may be a bit more complex. For example, if a group is trying to figure out the idiom "in the red," they would need to first display the word web for the key word "red" and then scroll over the red "meaning" bubble linked to the related words "red ink" to see the example sentence "The company operated in the red last year."
Creating Idiom Posters:
  • Distribute three sheets of large drawing paper or poster board to each small group of students.
  • Direct groups to write each idiom across the top of a sheet of drawing paper in large letters with a marker. Then, have groups fold these sheets in half so that they can draw the literal interpretation of the idiom on the left half of the paper and the figurative or intended interpretation or meaning of the expression on the right half. [For example, a literal interpretation of "elbow grease" would show a person smearing grease or butter on his elbow while the figurative interpretation might be a person mopping a floor or some other type of "hard work" (a VT definition of elbow grease).]


Presenting Idioms:
  • Have each group present its idiom posters by displaying them in front of the class. Groups should first just show the images to the class and ask them to try and interpret each idiom's intended meaning based on what they see on the poster. Then, if the class can not figure out the idiom's meaning, the presenting group should explicate the idiom and why they chose to illustrate it as they did.
  • After the group presentations, briefly discuss how students used the VT to help them figure out each idiom's meaning. Which idioms strike them as the most absurd or funny? How could the images they saw today help them remember these idioms in the future?
Extending the Lesson:
  • Another fun way to have students explore idioms and their double meanings would be to have small groups create short skits that demonstrate how a misinterpreted idiom could cause some pretty funny or disastrous results. For example, a doctor in an operating room asking for "a hand"? (Students can visit www.idiomconnection.com to find oodles of inspirational idioms.)


  • Groups' analyses of idioms' literal and figurative meanings can be assessed on accuracy and their use of the VT to validate their analysis.
  • Students' understanding of the specific idioms presented in class could be easily assessed by giving the class an idiom quiz to see how many idioms they interpret correctly.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level II (Grades 3-5)

6. Uses word reference materials (e.g., glossary, dictionary, thesaurus) to determine the meaning, pronunciation, and derivations of unknown words

7. Understands level-appropriate reading vocabulary (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homophones, multi-meaning words)

Level III (Grades 6-8)

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses context to understand figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Level II (Grades 3-5)

7. Makes basic oral presentations to class (e.g., uses subject-related information and vocabulary; includes content appropriate to the audience; relates ideas and observations; incorporates visual aids or props; incorporates several sources of information)

16. Understands that language reflects different regions and cultures (e.g., sayings; expressions; usage; oral traditions and customs; historical, geographical, and societal influences on language)

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Plays a variety of roles in group discussions (e.g., active listener, discussion leader, facilitator)

6. Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

5. Makes formal presentations to the class (e.g., includes definitions for clarity; supports main ideas using anecdotes, examples, statistics, analogies, and other evidence; uses visual aids or technology, such as transparencies, slides, electronic media; cites information sources)

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 10th 2007, 6:28 AM
Comment by: Sam G.
I wish Visual Thesaurus had been around when I was in college and graduate school.

This is an excellant learning tool that should be in every high school and lower grades also.

I am buying it for my grand kids. I live here in Guam and the native people would find this to be a great learning tool.

I recommend VT to all my friends.
Tuesday September 25th 2007, 12:25 AM
Comment by: Suzanne L.
I can't get the idiomconnection link to work. Have they moved their site? Maybe they are just updating it.
Tuesday September 25th 2007, 8:19 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Hi Suzanne,

Harris, the VT editor here. I just checked the idiomconnection.com link and it's working fine. Perhaps it was down for a bit? Thanks for your comment and support!

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