Opening Doors to Language through the Study of Idioms
“How can I bridge the gap between social and academic English?” was the question guiding the inquiry work of Mills Teacher Scholar Alberto Nodal. An elementary teacher in San Lorenzo, Alberto has been investigating effective instruction for English Language learners with Mills Teacher Scholars for the last 4 years. He recently presented his work on idioms at the California Association for Bilingual Educators conference (CABE) to a standing room only crowd of teachers who nicknamed him, “The idioms guy.”
As a 3rd grade teacher at a school with a bilingual program, I remember the sense of frustration I felt at the beginning of the school year as my students resisted speaking and writing academic English. They had no problem using English freely on the playground, but in the classroom they often responded negatively. How could I bridge the social conversational language with which they felt comfortable with the higher language demands that they deemed almost scary?
To try to address my question I decided to introduce idioms to my 3rd graders. Idioms, expressions whose meanings are different than the meaning of the individual words themselves, are both figurative and playful and are found in both academic and social contexts. Other teachers would ask me, “are idioms a 3rd grade standard?” and when I replied “no,” I would get a look of bewilderment as if saying, “If they’re not a standard, why are you bothering to teach them?”
While idioms are not a 3rd grade standard, they do help support other standards within the 3rd grade language arts framework such as word analysis, reading comprehension and literary response and analysis. By supporting these other areas, students are dipping their feet into the figurative language pool they will encounter in 4th grade and the rest of their academic career.
Daily, I would write one idiom on the board and then have students make predictions as to what they thought the expression meant. At first it was something foreign and confusing. Students looked at the combination of words literally and made predictions based on that. When I taught the idiom, “bite off more than you can chew,” students thought it had to do with food or eating too much. Luis, for example, guessed, “I think it means when you eat a lot of food.”
As the weeks went on, learning new idioms became something fun for the class. I shared the origin of how these expressions came into use. The background helped make sense of why the idiom is used today and it helped them make connections to where they might have seen or heard them before.
Looking a little closer, however, I realized that although students enjoyed the process of learning an idiom of the day, they still struggled to come up with a good prediction for the expression. They had a limited vocabulary and no background schema to work with. When I introduced “hit the hay,” one student said, “I think it means to beat someone up”. Initially I didn’t understand his reasoning, but when I questioned him a bit further I found he didn’t know what “hay” meant. He saw the word “hit” and thought of the physical act of hitting.
I wanted to learn how to help students stay away from the literal predictions so I brought my questions to my Mills Teacher Scholars meeting. After talking with my small group, a colleague suggested I give scenarios or clues to help students make more accurate predictions of what the expressions might mean. Once I brought this idea back to my classroom, it was like magic. More students were able to access the idioms because they were given various examples before even hearing the definition.
As we continued to study idioms, students began to find them all around: In their favorite cartoons they watched at home, in books they read and in conversations they would hear. During this sharing out, I realized how often students are exposed to idioms, but how often they previously went unnoticed and slid past students’ understanding. Students soon came to understand that idioms weren’t something that had no relevance or that I created solely to be used in the classroom. They were expressions that they could access outside of the classroom.
My students began to demonstrate a surprising grasp of the idioms we studied. I thought Jesus would struggle because he rarely used English in the class. When I gave idiom tests to check for comprehension, he scored very high. At first I questioned the validity of his scores and thought maybe he was copying off of a classmate, but as I began to listen to him explain in Spanish the English idioms he heard on TV, I realized he truly did have a grasp of what the expressions meant. He was taking what he learned in English, translating it into Spanish and making sense of it, and then explaining it back to me in English. Developmentally at a place where he was able to think more abstractly, he was becoming more aware of idioms in his everyday life and making the connections necessary to understand them.
It wasn’t until the end of my inquiry that I understood the great power of teaching idioms. My idiom study had taken on a life bigger than just teaching an idiom of the day: I was giving Jesus and other students cultural capital and critical language awareness, enabling them to navigate social and academic contexts in English and ultimately understand and utilize the sort of culturally embedded figurative language that native speakers master unconsciously. The study of idioms was opening doors for my students to both English language and U.S. culture.