Idioms – Figurative Language

Amazing Idioms by YPS 5th Graders

Photo by: Wesley Fryer

Authors use figurative language often to make their writing more vivid, but it can be a struggle for some children to understand figures of speech such as hyperbole, similes and metaphors, and personification.  Idioms are another type of figurative language that can be confusing for children.


Idioms are phrases that put together common words to form a meaning completely different from the dictionary meanings of the individual words.  For example, the phrase “a piece of cake” is a common idiom.  Natural English speakers understand that this phrase means that something is simple or easy.  For someone who is just learning English, like a child, the words “a piece of cake” bring up the mental picture of an actual slice of cake.  Many times idioms need to be explained to children before they truly understand what is being said.

Idioms in Books

Some of the best books to teach idioms are the Amelia Bedelia series by Peggy Parish.  Amelia Bedelia is a housekeeper for a for a wealthy couple.  The fun comes into the story through Amelia’s inability to understand figurative language.  She takes every instruction literally which creates funny events.  In one book, Amelia is told to go right at the fork in the road, but she gets lost because she never sees an eating utensil in the road.  Another book finds Amelia putting dust on all the furniture when she was told to dust the living room furniture.  Kids will love seeing Amelia Bedelia do things that are obviously incorrect, and it will be a great way to introduce and review the meanings of many common idioms.

Have Your Children In Stitches

One of the things that children love is to illustrate both meanings of an idiom.  Simply choose an idiom where the literal meaning would be humorous.  Then have your child draw a picture of the literal meaning.  They could then draw a picture of the figurative meaning of the idiom as well.  This will help them recognize how different those two meaning can be.  And children will often be in stitches at the thought of the literal meaning.  (As with the idiom “in stitches,” it is funny to picture a person with stitches all over like a puppet. )

Idioms take common words and turn them into a completely new meaning.  While they are confusing at first, once understood they add creativity to writing.  In our next figurative language post, we will discuss the fun topic of onomatopoeia.

How do you teach the figurative language of idioms to your children?

Elementary Reading Curriculum at Smart Tutor

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