Idioms are fun to study and a good way to introduce student writers to the use of figurative language. In addition, studying idioms is a help to English language learners as well as developing readers who may find idioms confusing and difficult. We suggest keeping the list of idioms small to begin with; introducing them in the context of reading works best.
HOOK: Choose one of the many picture books that highlight idioms (a short list follows this lesson), a poem (such as Shel Silverstein’s “Losing Pieces”), or an excerpt from one of the Amelia Bedelia books. Fred Gwynne’s A Chocolate Moose for Dinner is a classic.
PURPOSE: Today, writers, we are going to talk about idioms. Idioms are a kind of figurative language, like similes, that can add interest to our writing. Sometimes, idioms can be confusing because they don’t seem to make sense. For example, if I say, “It was raining cats and dogs,” I don’t really mean cats and dogs were falling from the sky. If you are quiet and I ask, “Does the cat have your tongue?” do I really think a cat is holding onto your tongue? Most people use idioms from time to time when they speak. Today we are going to see if we can use idioms in our writing as well.
BRAINSTORM: Begin an anchor chart or idiom wall by writing the examples above on the chart:
It was raining cats and dogs.
Does the cat have your tongue?
Ask students to brainstorm in their notebooks as many idioms that they can think of. After a few minutes, ask them to share their list with a partner. If you have read one of the collection of idioms books, like Gwynne’s referred to in the hook, they will probably remember some of those. Other students may think of others besides those they heard in the reading. You might challenge them to think of idioms that involve animals such as:
Let the cat out of the bag
In the doghouse
Barking up the wrong tree
Sick as a dog
When pigs fly
Ask the class to decide on a definition of “idiom.” You may also want to ask the student writers to guess at how the idioms may have originated.
MODEL: Since the purpose of the lesson is to add interest to writing by adding figurative language (in this case idioms), demonstrate the difference between “literal” meaning and “figurative” meaning. Drawing the literal meaning of the idiom (as Gwynne does in his books) is a concrete experience. If you are not an artist, try using photographs or illustrations as examples. Under the drawing, write the figurative meaning of the idiom.
“Raining cats and dogs” — drawing shows dogs and cats falling from the sky.
Figurative meaning: It was raining really hard.
“In the doghouse” – drawing shows a kid with his head sticking out of a doghouse.
Figurative meaning: In the doghouse means you are in trouble.
GUIDED WRITING: Ask students to work in pairs to select two idioms (from the anchor chart and/or from the book used as the hook) and to illustrate the literal meaning with a picture. Then, ask them to label the picture with the figurative meaning. Provide resources like Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms, or an online dictionary such as idioms.thefreedictionary.com. Some students might want to research the origin of the idiom as well. Encourage them to do so. Share their drawings and figurative meaning, clearing up any misconceptions.
INDEPENDENT WRITING: Direct student writers to consult with their writer’s notebook entries and find a spot where they can add an idiom. If they don’t have an entry that works, ask them to try it out by starting a new piece. You might write in front of them to get them started:
As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a bad day. It was pouring down rain, and I had left my umbrella in my school locker along with my homework assignments. I thought about asking my mom if I could stay home, but I knew she would tell me I had to go to school and face the music.
REFLECTION: After students have tried out using idioms in their writing, ask them to reflect on one of the following questions:
What do you now know about idioms?
When do you think you might use idioms in your writing again?
Did using an idiom change your writing for the better or not? Explain why you think so.
Sometimes an idiom will make the piece sound trite. Student writers should recognize that idiom use can be overdone.
Books about idioms:
More Parts and Even More Parts by Todd Arnold
A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne
Raining Cats and Dogs by Will Moses
My Teacher Likes to Say and My Grandma Likes to Say by Denise Brennan Nelson
Bad Boys by Margie Palatini
Amelia Bedelia (series) by Peggy Parish