The Simplest Way to Teach Idioms & Phrasal Verbs (Intermediate to Advanced ESL)

ESL Level: Intermediate-Advanced

Language Focus: Idioms, phrasal verbs, proverbs, other useful vocabulary

Preparation: Five minutes to find eight or so idioms before class

Equipment: Students need Smartphones that can access the web


One of the best things about having students who are at an intermediate level or higher is that you can use them as a teaching resource. Whenever possible, I have my students teach the class new vocabulary and even verb tenses (usually as a review). In this student-centred age, the less talking you can do as teacher, the better for them and you.

Let students teach for you.

Sit down and take a break, hot shot!

Teaching Idioms through a Dialogue (Using Context)

This is one way that I teach idioms to my students.

  1. [Before Class] Go online and find about eight useful idioms (sample below taken from list here). Write them on separate slips of paper. You’ll need at least one idiom per student pair, so if you have 16 students, have at least 8 idioms. It can be useful to have a few extra too since sometimes students may already know the idiom they’ve been given, so you can then give them an extra one.
  2. Show your students that you have a list of words in your hands. Explain that you are going to give them, in pairs, an idiom. Their job is to teach it to the class. However, they should not just tell the class the meaning of their idiom once they understand it. Instead, after they have researched the meaning, they need to develop a dialog that uses the idiom in a natural context. After performing their dialogue, they should ask the class if they understood the meaning of the idiom. Challenge them to make a dialogue so clear and natural that the meaning of the idiom will be obvious.
  3. Give a slip of paper to each pair.
  4. Give them 20 minutes to research the idiom online and develop a natural dialogue that shows its meaning. Monitor and make sure they do not go astray (the nuances of idioms can be hard to get right; preview their dialogues). If students finish early, have them create comprehension questions related to their dialogue (e.g. “Why was I upset?” / “What was the solution to my problem?”…)
  5. Invite the students, in pairs, to stand in front of the class. First, they should write their idiom on the board (encourage other students to write it down too, so they learn it). Then they can give perform their conversation. Afterwards, they need to elicit the meaning of the idiom from the class. If the class doesn’t get it, start a chant of “encore!!” so dialogue is performed again until the class can guess the idiom’s meaning. Try to stay out of the conversation as the teacher.

Though this activity is great, students often need a bit more practice to actually learn the idioms (especially those of other students). I often prepare conversation questions with the idioms that students can ask each other after the activity or as a warm-up on the next day.

Sample Idioms List

To get/start the ball rolling

To talk shop

win-win

to work your fingers to the bone

the upper hand

to move forward with something

to burn your bridges

to know/learn the ropes

to call it a day

That’s it. Of course, you can’t do this every week, but it can be refreshing way to get idioms taught. It also gives the spotlight to the students, enabling you to take a break.

Idiomatically speaking, it’s a win-win situation.

— Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

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