By Peter Smith :
Peter has over 30 years experience as a teacher of French and German, and is currently a member of the board of OpenExam and a director of Schoolshape Ltd.
For enrichment of students’ language learning, idioms are an important addition to the teacher’s toolbox. Idiomatic language can be as useful and diverting as games, poems, songs, drama, video and tongue-twisters. They are also a subtle gateway to the all-important understanding of a foreign culture.
The advent of ‘1:1’ (each student having an online device) has prompted new strategies for introducing new material. With the ‘flipped classroom, for example, students are encouraged to ‘think around’ the new subject matter, using online tools such Language Lab software and multimedia online worksheets containing audio, video and exercises, to support learning and encourage collaboration.
So, why should idioms be presented to young linguists seeking to extend their linguistic and cultural knowledge?
Idioms are an important and enjoyable part of language and communication. They help to focus students’ attention on the imaginative side of communication, to dig beneath straightforward dictionary meanings, and launch them on the high seas of figurative language. They also offer a challenging way for students to develop their productive writing and all-important oracy skills.
Four good reasons for putting idioms on the agenda:
1. They can provide a way to improve the style and quality of students' written and spoken language. There will be many who will want to use such delightful francophone expressions as ‘appuyer sur le champignon’, ‘casser les pieds à quelqu'un’ and ‘avoir un chat dans la gorge’. Others may seek to use more complex figurative expressions.
2. They are a useful addition to the teacher's assessment toolbox ... a good way to sort the wheat from the chaff amongst students.
3. They help to provide a springboard for discussion of culture differences, personalities and sensibilities of nationalities, as reflected in their language.
4. Their introduction will, at the very least, provide some light relief and enrich discussion in the classroom.
When to introduce idioms?
Plunging students too early and too abruptly into the ‘deep end’ of figurative language can be counterproductive. The timing of their introduction is a delicate matter. Premature exposure can be fraught with misunderstandings, even in the students’ native language, and the potential quagmire of idiomatic language can be a daunting prospect.
The new ‘1:1’ strategies allow the teacher to be very precise about timing. Students can work from an agenda or ‘to do list’ on their online device, controlled by the teacher. This will display tasks appropriate for them individually, guiding them into new material which they can tackle on their own terms and in their own time. As tasks and worksheets can be online, the teacher can monitor progress, and see precisely the subsequent support required in the classroom.
How to deploy Idioms
So what is the best, clearest and safest method of unleashing idioms in the language classroom? How are foreign language teachers to explain the meaning of idiom with the greatest economy and clarity, by providing structured tasks which will help students to improve their language skills?
What to avoid
A ‘cold’ introduction to a complex or potentially difficult topic, particularly to a mixed ability class, can be counterproductive. The level of understanding will vary from one student to the next according to their respective abilities and learning styles. The ‘chalk and talk lecture' is a blunt instrument and class discussions are prone to red herrings. Much valuable time can be wasted when some members of a class are ready for the discussion and others are not, resulting in uncertain levels of comprehension and little tangible achievement.
A better way
‘1:1’ strategies, and the ‘flipped classroom’ method allow students to study the new material in their own time before doing follow-up work under the direct supervision of the teacher. This method has a ‘warm-up’ effect, allowing each student time to think around the subject in their own time, collaborate with peers, and, crucially, try the language out for themselves.
Key teaching elements
Using an online language lab, the teacher can assign multimedia worksheets, adapting the content to the right level to suit the various levels of ability and achievement of the students. As students work on the material by watching and responding to video etc., the teacher can check how they are coping with their initial exposure to the subject matter, and see who is showing signs of using the new language correctly. With preliminary exposure to idiomatic language thus absorbed, students will be ready and more confident for subsequent activity in the classroom.
In class the teacher will then be able to adopt a more individual approach, with slower students finishing their online work, and more able students working on more complex idiomatic language and structures.
An example worksheet: Se casser la tête
This worksheet introduces ‘se casser la tête’, ‘ne me casse pas la tête’ and ‘le casse-tête’. It is eand contains elements which:
(a) explain in theory how idiomatic language works. This could be a simple written explanation such as:
‘Idioms are expressions or sayings that do not make sense when translated word for word, but have meaning to a native speaker. They often carry certain cultural nuances that are relevant for native speakers’
(b) illustrate the meaning, literal and/or figurative, using a graphic
(c) provide opportunities to think about alternatives for translation into English
(d) give written and spoken examples, both in the students’ mother tongue and in the target language.
(e) provide opportunities for hearing and repeating the idiom in common usage and then speaking and writing it in context.
Introducing idioms in this way should help to preempt problematic questions such as: ‘How do I translate one idiom with another idiom? or ‘What does Je me casse la tête mean?’
This method will also hopefully whet appetites for learning more idiomatic phrases.