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Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs!

Using idioms and phrasal verbs in ESL

Image courtesy of PixelAnarchy

Stuart Redman, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces his upcoming webinar on 30th September entitled: “Don’t Give Up on Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.”

Teachers often have strong views about teaching (or not teaching) idioms and phrasal verbs. Read through a cross-section of views below. Which statements do you most identify with? Are there any that you strongly disagree with?

‘I tend to steer clear of idioms and phrasal verbs for low-level learners. They have other priorities, and I don’t want to confuse the students too much.’

‘I teach phrasal verbs and idioms as they come up, even to low-level learners; for example, they need to understand items like ‘write it down’ or ‘take it in turns’ as part of the classroom language I use.’

‘I teach quite a few phrasal verbs, but I don’t really teach idioms. They don’t seem to crop up very much in the course books I use.’

‘Generally speaking, the students I teach are learning English for academic purposes, so I don’t teach many idioms and phrasal verbs because they’re too informal. I just stick to teaching more latinate vocabulary, because that’s what they need for reading, essays and that sort of thing.’

‘I’m quite confused about how to organise the teaching of idioms and phrasal verbs. I always go over the grammar of phrasal verbs, but after that, I’m not sure how to go about it in a systematic way.’

‘I often focus on idioms associated with parts of the body, for instance, ‘have a chip on your shoulder’, ‘put your foot in it’; or animal idioms such as ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and ‘the black sheep of the family’. It’s always fun, so that helps students remember it.’

‘When I studied English at school, we used to learn long lists of phrasal verbs organised by the root verb, for example, ‘take in, ‘take out’, take over’, etc. As a student I found this quite confusing and I felt overloaded.’

‘It’s all very well teaching idioms and phrasal verbs, but the big problem is how to practise them. I think students get bored by just doing gap fill exercises, and that’s the kind of thing I come across most often.’

‘I don’t bother much with teaching idioms because a lot of learners tend to use them inappropriately or they just stand out like a sore thumb.’

Look again at the statements. Can you find fourteen idioms and phrasal verbs, not including the examples given in inverted commas, e.g write it down and take it in turns?

During my upcoming webinar we will look at ways of organising and contextualizing idioms and phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. We’ll also be looking at material from the Oxford Word Skills series and the Oxford Learner’s Pocket series.


Homophones: Some Sound Advice

Woman's earIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.

Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.

Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.

The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.

When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.

The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.

My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.

So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!


What do idioms look like?

Man with egg on his faceAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 entitled ‘Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs’, Stuart Redman, co-author of Oxford Word Skills, ‘gets to the bottom of‘ idioms in the English language.

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you see these expressions?
kick the bucket
be barking up the wrong tree
a storm in a teacup
strike while the iron is hot
have egg on your face

Your answer is probably that they are all idioms: groups of words that not only have a meaning that is different from the individual words, but also a meaning that is often difficult or impossible to guess from the individual words. If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they have the wrong idea about how to get or achieve something; it has nothing to do with – or is unlikely to have anything to do with – dogs or trees. If you have egg on your face, you might need a handkerchief, but it’s more likely that you are embarrassed or feel stupid because something you have tried to do has gone wrong. These expressions are also good examples of the commonly-held view that idioms tend to be very vivid and colourful expressions.

Now, let’s turn to another list of expressions. What do they have in common with the list above?
to some extent
I’ve no idea
from time to time
first of all
in the distance

Less obvious perhaps, but the answer, in fact, is the same: they are all idioms. Is the meaning of these expressions very different from the individual words? Not to any great extent. Is the meaning difficult or impossible to guess? Not particularly. Are they vivid and colourful expressions? Certainly not. So, why are they idioms?

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