Approaches to the Common Core: IDIOMS ARE SPEED BUMPS*

Some people refer to paraphrasing as “literal comprehension,” meaning, “You can tell what is literally going on or being said.”  And to some extent, that’s accurate.  But there’s more to it.  In any given sentence, FIGURATIVE things are also happening or being expressed, too.

On the road to comprehension, idioms are speed bumps.  When we talk about reading comprehension gaps (to toss in another metaphor), I believe idioms are THE MISSING LINK.  No matter how you slice them (See? I can’t help myself!), idioms are essential to lucid comprehension.

Look at this example: “Because my participation in the stock market had cost me an arm and a leg, I decided to invest in real estate instead.”

The syntax in this sentence is somewhat complex and the vocabulary is somewhat challenging, but let’s say you could break the clauses apart and find synonyms for “participation” and “invest.”  If you’d been listening to the news lately, “stock market” and “real estate” would not be unfamiliar terms, even if you didn’t know much about them.  You could probably paraphrase MOST of the sentence.  But not the idiom.  You’d have to SLOW DOWN and DRAW AN INFERENCE ABOUT THE IDIOM.  And while you might know the literal meanings of “cost,” “me” “an arm” “and” and “a leg,” you might not grasp what they meant when bundled together.

“How hard could it be?” you ask.  I once sat in a 7th-grade classroom where students could not explain the expression “go out on a limb.”  And there was a tree visible through the window.

We assume that everyone knows these “simple” expressions.  While the words in an idiom might be short, if you haven’t ever heard a particular idiom, it’s not so simple.  And if English is not your first language, you are less likely to have heard common idioms.  So when people use them, you don’t understand what they’re saying.  And if they’re telling a joke, you don’t get it.  That’s frustrating.  It can be tough on the joke-teller, too.  It took me several months of living with a Chinese roommate in grad school before I realized that it wasn’t that she had no sense of humor; she just didn’t comprehend most of my jokes.

Why don’t our students know more about idioms?  One problem is that English teachers often limit their discussion of figurative language to the context of poetry and fiction, emphasizing metaphors and similes only in those genres.  Unless we point them out, students may fail to notice that idioms and other figurative uses of language also appear frequently in nonfiction—in newspapers and magazines and everyday conversation.

Here’s the bottom line: students who struggle to speak standard English (whether English is their first language or not) will neither recognize nor comprehend standard English idioms.  So we need to teach BOTH the idioms AND the strategies for figuring them out.

Here’s a simple graphic organizer (found on the TLC “Idiom Power” page) that you can use as a Do Now to boost Idiom Power:

Here is the idiom. DRAW a picture of the idiom. PARAPHRASE: What does it say, literally? DRAW AN INFERENCE: What does this expression really mean?  What’s the message?
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” [Pretend there’s a drawing here.] Having a bird in your hand is the equivalent of having two in a nearby hedge/tree. It’s better to have a little bit of something than to have none of it and only hope you can get more.
This homework was only “a drop in the bucket” compared to all of the work you’ll be assigned this semester.      

These two Websites (which also appear on the TLC “Idiom Power” page) will help you teach idioms:

*This entry is adapted from The Literacy Cookbook, which is available for pre-order HERE.

About theliteracycookbook

In addition to this blog, I am the creator of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK Website ( and ONLY GOOD BOOKS Blog (, and the author of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2012), LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and USING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING: Recipes for Action (BookBaby, 2018). Check out my Website for more information about my consulting work.
This entry was posted in ELA Common Core Standards, Idioms, Inference, Nonfiction, Paraphrasing, Reading, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Approaches to the Common Core: IDIOMS ARE SPEED BUMPS*

  1. I agree with your concept of teaching both the idioms and the strategies for figuring them out. Thanks for the great article, I am highly interested to read and promote your book too.

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