How to Integrate Slang and Idioms into the ESL Curriculum
A critical part of learning a language is being able to understand and use slang and idioms. However, spoken language by native speakers, or language used in authentic material, often does not follow the strict rules and formulas that are taught in textbooks. Also, by their very nature of already being published, textbooks are unable to keep up with the changes in the language as they slowly evolve to incorporate new concepts and ideas. Thus, to be able to effectively teach slang and idioms, the teacher may have to expend some additional preparatory time to select the idioms to be taught and develop appropriate course materials.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Clark C. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Why teaching Slang and Idioms?
Teaching slang and idioms are in some ways easier than other classes. For one thing, it can be easy to motivate students to learn about slang and idioms. Many students who want to learn English already have an interest in English or American culture, and may already have started watching TV dramas from these countries. For example, in Asian countries, "Friends" was a very popular TV drama. Thus, a teacher can easily start the Engage portion of the lesson with a short clip from a TV drama or movie. For higher-level students, even students of business English, articles in the Wall Street Journal or The Economist also frequently use slang and idioms.
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The next phase of any lesson plan will incorporate a Study portion, in which the teacher will have to explain what the idiom means, as well as how it is used. In many cases, because of the odd combination of language that is used, it can be easy to create a mnemonic that will help students remember the meaning of the idiom. For example, "a fish out of water" can use a picture of a fish flopping on the ground contrasted with a fish swimming effortlessly through the ocean. "Giving a cold shoulder” can use the popular meme of the boyfriend looking at another girl, and drawing an ice cube on the girlfriend's shoulder. After explaining the meaning, the teacher can present worksheets - for example, multiple-choice questions with different "formal" sentences, and the students need to pick which "formal" sentence can be replaced with the idiom being taught. As the students learn more idioms, lessons can become more complex with gap-fill and matching.
During the Activate portion of the lesson, the students can be asked to create a short skit or dialogue that uses that particular slang. If it is later in the course, then teachers can create a slang/idiom-based communication game in which students will be challenged to use one piece of slang that has been taught to them previously. Slang and idioms do not need to take up an entire class period. It may be a good way of breaking up the monotony of following the textbook by having a "Slang and Idioms" session periodically. Teaching one or two pieces of slang can be done in as short as 10 minutes, and can help maintain the students' motivation in learning English.
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Although this lesson plan incorporates the ESA methodology favored by this TEFL course, there are other "lessons" that can be used that will be useful for the students. For example, students can also be introduced to slang commonly used in messaging, for example, OMG, LOL or FYI. Although not part of any formal examination, these are still very important to introduce to students given their ubiquitous usage in modern communication. It's not necessary to create a complete ESA lesson for each; rather, one or two can be sprinkled periodically into classroom sessions, and students will likely commonly use them on their own, and perhaps even start using them in their daily lives when they text their fellow students and will be easily absorbed.
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For advanced students, especially in situations where the teacher is familiar with the local culture and conversant in the local language, the teacher can have a discussion about a particular idiom in English and contrast it with one that is used in the student's native tongue; there are some interesting cultural quirks that can be revealed during this discussion, and this type of intellectual conversation may also serve to keep the advanced student interested in continuing to learn new English expressions.
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