Teaching Idioms

One of my favourite games to play with students of intermediate level and above is Idioms Pictionary. This is also a good game your family can play with homestay students.

It’s a simple game – most people know the rules of Pictionary.

It’s good practice in creating pictures to aid vocabulary learning.

All you need is a pen, paper and list of idioms.

Why Idioms & What Idioms?

The C1 Cambridge exam includes idioms among the kind of advanced language they’re looking for in the speaking test.

Idioms are a bit tricky as they tend to be quite time- and culture-bound. For example, you’re unlikely to hear the phrase ‘Spill the beans’ these days, Gen Z prefers, ‘Spill the tea’. A lot of Brits had never heard of the American expression, ‘to put lipstick on a pig’ until the 2008 presidential campaign. So, it’s important to choose phrases in current use, used widely, most likely to be useful to students.

The Game

I generally play the game with idioms connected by the type of language they employ e.g. idioms which use good words, time words, weather words etc. I think this helps when playing, especially for non-artists. But, it may be more useful to group idioms by theme e.g. expressions to talk about relationships, work, travel etc with the emphasis on meaning rather than form.

When drawing idioms you could focus on the meaning or the form. You’re most likely, I think to focus on form (this is particularly true for students as they may not know the meaning). To remember the idiom, however, it’s best to draw a picture which incorporates both meaning and form, so after playing the game and discussing the meaning, it’s a good idea to try to update you picture to indicate meaning if possible.


To break the ice.

To break the ice

The second picture (although badly drawn) attempts to illustrate meaning as well as form and is more likely to be remembered.


To play idioms Pictionary you don’t need to know the meaning of a phrase. It’s possible to draw a hill of beans, for example, without knowing it means something unimportant. (I probably wouldn’t choose that expression as it’s quite outdated). However, it’s important to explain the meaning once the idiom has been guessed.

Idioms to try

Idioms with weather words

Idioms with ‘Time’

Idioms with food words

Real-Life examples

Use YouGlish to find real-life examples of the idioms in use.

Vocabulary Profiling 2

Have a look at ‘Vocabulary Profiling 1‘ for reasons to profile vocabulary.

LexTutor is a little less user-friendly than VocabKitchen (you may not want students to try it themselves) but offers some additional features.

One of these gives you the Type-Token Ratio (TTR) of your text. This is the number of word types against the number of word tokens. If you have the word ‘the’ 12 times in a text, that’s 12 tokens, but 1 type. The TTR indicates lexical variation (the higher the number, the more varied the vocabulary). When I did my first degree we had to count each word and each type and calculate this ourselves (I like LexTutor!).

Another feature LexTutor offers is calculating the Lexical Density of a text. This is the number of content words as opposed to function words in a text. The higher the Lexical Density, the more complex the language.

LexTutor also allows you to check your text against different corpora than VocabKitchen. As well as the Academic Word List (AWL), you can check against the BNC-COCA (which is similar to the CEFR in VocabKitchen).


Vocabulary Profiling 1

How do you decide on the vocabulary to teach students?
Which vocabulary in a given text would you want students to learn and which items could you just gloss?
If you use a course book, you probably don’t really think about this but if you’re adapting resources (either authentic materials or changing the level of ELT materials), these are important questions.
Usually, I think it’s a mixture of experience and guesswork. And, arguably, for general EFL classes that’s fine.
But, how do you choose the vocabulary you will focus on if you’re teaching courses in specialist subjects you don’t have as much experience in?
What if you want to prove to your students that those particular vocabulary items are useful?
What if you want students to be able to assess their own use of vocabulary in written work, in terms of level?
Vocabulary Profiling is the answer!
I’ve just discovered (through the CertPT in EAP) VocabKitchen and LexTutor. They’re really exciting and they’re free to use!
Using VocabKitchen you can check a text against CEFR levels, the Academic Word List (AWL) and the New Academic Word List (NWAL).
You can use it to choose which words to teach or change or to get students to profile their own writing. You might want to point out, if using the CEFR list, that the majority of words will be highlighted in blue (A1 level) if the text is grammatically correct. Also, students should note that this only indicates the level of discrete lexical items, idiomatic phrases or collocations which would be considered ‘advanced’ won’t necessarily be highlighted as advanced.
For help using LexTutor, have a look at Vocabulary Profiling 2