Why idioms shouldn't be left to chance in primary school

Idioms can confuse and become a barrier to learning unless they are explicitly taught, says this deputy headteacher

primary school

In a way, the boy was following instructions. But not in the way the teacher had intended.

Wishing the pupil would get to work, the teacher had told him to "pull his socks up".

The pupil then reached down and did just that. Not because he was playing up, but because he had no idea that the phrase meant something other than what he had perceived it to mean.


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As teachers, we all experience the curse of knowledge when we make assumptions about the language children understand in the classroom. As comparative experts in English, it is all too easy to throw in words and phrases that we might expect children to understand that actually obfuscate our intended meaning.

A pupil who recalls something difficult from a previous lesson might be told they are “on the ball today”, when a task is completed with ease we might say it was “a piece of cake”, although of course as conscientious teachers we would never tell a pupil that they were “driving us up the wall”.

Confusion reigns

This idiomatic language can be particularly confusing for children who are language novices. It means they are are not only locked out of the meaning of a text when these idioms appear, reducing their ability to comprehend what is being said, but also that, as a teacher, your ability to teach knowledge in accessible ways is lessened.

Raising the awareness of specific idioms to focus on in class means that teachers are more likely to use these in other contexts.

After teaching a science unit on the circulatory system (and its corresponding idioms), a teacher might consciously use the phrase "bad blood" when describing the relationship between feuding brothers Julius and Varjak in SF Said’s Varjak Paw or the "ancient grudge" between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.

So what can we do to address this gap?

Expand the knowledge

We should, of course, read widely and draw attention to idiomatic language in the texts that we read throughout the school day, but can we go one better than leaving this up to chance?

One approach might be to explicitly teach some of this idiomatic language alongside some of the content that pupils learn across the curriculum.

In science, when learning about the circulatory system, we could teach the following idioms:

  • Bad blood

  • Blue blood

  • Make blood boil

  • Blood is thicker than water

Sport can often be a rich source of idiomatic language, so, in a unit of work on cricket, we can teach the following:

  • Stumped

  • Just not cricket

  • To catch someone out

In geography, when learning about coasts we might plan to teach these phrases, among others:

  • Coast is clear

  • Drop in the ocean

  • Make waves

  • The tide is turning

While some idioms are possible to understand with a good grasp of vocabulary and a little creative thought ("no stone unturned", for example, gives a fairly clear image of looking carefully and systematically), some are particularly abstruse and will need explicit teaching (eg "having a chip on the shoulder" or "kick the bucket").  

Broaden vocabulary

After sharing the meanings with the class, it is worthwhile giving opportunities to practise these orally in sentences and identify correct and incorrect usage.

Digging into the origins of this language can be instructive in uncovering the meaning and gives further nuance to its usage.

Did you know, for example, that the phrase "turn a blind eye" is believed to originate from The Battle of Copenhagen in 1801? During the battle, Admiral Nelson deliberately looked through his telescope with his blind eye to avoid seeing the order to withdraw from his, in Nelson’s eyes, overly cautious commander.

We can’t just leave this to chance in the hope that, along the way, immersion in language will fill all the gaps. We hope to get "the best of both worlds" – exposure to rich language through reading and discussion but also through carefully planned explicit teaching.

So, get your act together, bite the bullet and start planning to teach idiomatic language today!

Andrew Percival is deputy headteacher at Stanley Road Primary School in Oldham
 

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