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Proverbs and idioms

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This is a tip all about teaching your students proverbs and idioms. 

Jo Budden

Proverb: a short saying in general use, held to embody a general truth

Idiom: a group of words established by usage and having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words

(Definitions from the Oxford Concise Dictionary)

Before deciding to teach your students proverbs or idioms it may be worth considering the following:

  • How often do we actually use proverbs and idioms?
  • Are my students going to use their English mainly to communicate with native speakers or other non-native speakers?
  • Do my students need to be able to produce idioms and proverbs or only recognise them and understand them?
  • Have students asked me to teach them some proverbs and idioms or am I forcing it on them because I think it will be fun?
  • Are my students ever likely to spend time in an English-speaking country?

The reason I suggest you ask yourself these questions before embarking on any teaching of proverbs or idioms is probably obvious. However, picture the scene: a group of businesspeople in a meeting in Hong Kong. They communicate in English but none of them are native English speakers.

Businessperson 1: I can't believe the weather. It's raining cats and dogs!

Businessperson 2: Oh yes, but I think it will improve. However, we shouldn't count our chickens before they've hatched. I saw the forecast and it may well continue raining until the weekend.

Although this is an exaggerated scenario, it seems almost farcical for non-native speakers to use these expressions amongst themselves. There are so many of these expressions in the English language that it's highly unlikely they'll all have learnt the same ones so it is probable that their usage will lead to confusion and misunderstanding. It is probably more plausible that they may one day have to understand them, but they may not ever have to use them.

However, after considering the needs of your students and deciding they do need to learn some proverbs here are a few ideas to help you on your way. It can be a lot of fun to work with proverbs and idioms, but just try to ensure that the time you invest in teaching them will be worth it for your students.

Tips for using proverbs and idioms in class:

  • Deal with proverbs and idioms as and when they crop up in their contexts, such as in reading and listening tasks or when you use one naturally in class.
  • Group the sayings by topic and introduce in conjunction with other activities around the topic. For example, teach several 'body idioms' together, e.g. to be head and shoulders above the rest, to be long in the tooth, to shoot yourself in the foot, etc. It will be easier for students to remember some of them if they're in groups.
  • Use visuals and pictures to help learners remember them. For example, draw a bird in the hand and two in the bush.
  • Do some matching activities. For example, give students five proverbs that have been cut in half and get them to match them up.
  • Ask students if any of the proverbs translate directly into their own language. Most of the time students will know a similar expression in their language and it can help them to remember them if they compare the differences between English and their language.
  • Put them into context. Try to use situations when people actually use the expressions and get students to create dialogues or role-plays and to use a few of the proverbs to reinforce the meaning.
  • Explain to students that it may be more useful for them to be able to understand the expressions when they hear them than to be able to produce them. Ask them how they would react if a non-native speaker used this type of expression in their language. Would they find it a bit strange?
  • Don't overload students with too many at a time. Five is probably a good number for one class.

Internet links

This site has a huge collection of proverbs from around the world:

This site has so many proverbs it's hard to know where to start! You could give this link to your students if they're keen proverb learners! If they get really into it there are lots of proverb crosswords too.

Language level
Language Level: 
Intermediate: B1