Using iconography to teach idioms

I have been working with some chalk & talk (or is click & flick?) trainers and I observed one of them teach some English idiomsbusiness idioms by showing her Ss a slide with a table of some 15 odd idioms, reading them out one by one along with the definitions and ending the stage by instructing her class to try and use these expressions. Later, we discussed of ways of making this interaction more learner-centric. When I suggested trying to use visuals, she said she couldn’t draw to save her life and had also faced challenges in locating appropriate visual cues for these idioms.

I know Eltpics has some images for idioms but I wanted to give her a way of designing her own quickly without having to squirrel around the Internet looking for someone who may have possibly created an image for the idiom you want to teach. The net’s awash with iconography. I highly recommend Flat Icon and The Noun Project. The icons in this activity sheet were designed by Luis Prado and I’ve used them as is but if you take a close look at them or this one on the right by Aenne Brielmann, you’ll see that the icon is in fact a composite of other icons. Grab an icon of a dog along with a cat, position it on top of an umbrella in MS PowerPoint, add some vertical lines and it’s raining cats and dogs.

Of course the icons themselves won’t have made the stage more learner-centric, here’s how that missing bit could be addressed through an activity that could serve as a warmer or for speaking practice.


‘Idiom icons’ cut-outs with a set for each group.


  • Divide Ss into pairs or groups.
  • Distribute a set of icons to each group and ask them to describe a really strange day at work using the images in the icons as prompts.
  • Ask groups to share their stories.
  • Inform groups that each icon describes an idiom. Demo an example and ask Ss to figure out what the other idioms might be. If this is too challenging for your Ss, give them the idioms on slips of paper and ask them to match the words to the images.
  • Ss work with their group members to figure out the meanings of these idioms perhaps through a web quest or some other activity.
  • Check meaning and do form in whatever way makes sense to you.
  • Now ask Ss to go over their stories again in light of the new associations they have for each image.

NB: I chose the idioms in the activity sheet quite arbitrarily. You, hopefully have an instructionally sound way of grouping, grading and teaching idioms. The answers are (going clockwise from top-left) skeleton in the closet, hot potato, head in the sand, tread lightly, elephant in the room, helicopter parent, stab someone in the back and clip someone’s wings. 


4 thoughts on “Using iconography to teach idioms

  1. hi Adi

    for less arbitrary way to pick idioms (for spoken English) have a read of this paper The Most Frequently Used Spoken American English Idioms: A Corpus Analysis and Its
    Implications []

    if you are interested (and have time) looking for someone to help in identifying most frequent meanings of idioms from that list above by using sample concordances from COCA-BYU



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