Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices

David Hirsch


Featured Article

Piece of cake! Idiom activities and the importance of proper intonation
Andrew Edison Schneider

Idioms pop up everywhere in English media, often met with confused looks by our students. Even our more advanced students have difficulty using them with any degree of competence, especially if the idioms are culturally different from their own (Irujo, 1986). Given their importance, more attention should be paid to teaching idioms in ESL settings (Cooper, 1998). It is up to the teachers to help students not only learn idioms, but also to encourage their usage in an intelligible manner. How can teachers incorporate idioms into classroom settings in a relaxed, communicative, and student-centered way? More important, how can we teach the intonation of idioms to achieve students’ maximum intelligibility? I have found the following three activities to be helpful for my students.

1. BYOI—Bring Your Own Idiom
Each student chooses one idiom to “teach” the class. They may choose from any source, and learn it well enough to be able to explain it in front of their classmates. This is a great warm-up; it’s student-centered and exciting, since they have chosen these idioms themselves based on their own interests. Don’t be surprised if a number of idioms come from Gossip Girl or Glee, American television programs centering around high-school students, so idioms relating to dating and shopping tend to surface quite often (i.e., It’s on me; She’s into him; Those shoes are totally you). During the students’ explanations, I stay off to the side and will assist only if the situation calls for it; I have even done this activity remotely via Skype when I was home sick in bed. Having the students in charge of this activity made it quite manageable. It can also act as a springboard for all kinds of culture-related discussions.

2. Where Is the CHAnge?
A major obstacle facing our students is intelligibility, especially when using idioms. While pronunciation may be a factor, an equally important factor is proper intonation. As the pitch in our voices rises and falls, these changes in intonation are processed by the listener (Cruttenden, 1986). If you have ever studied Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese, you may be familiar with the inextricable link between the proper tone and communication. In English as well, when language is given the correct intonation, communication can be greatly enhanced. To emphasize this point with my students, I imitate the “wa wa” teacher from Charlie Brown. I walk around the class, lock eyes with a student, raise my hand, and slowly say “Wa, wa wa Wa?” What I am actually saying is “Hi, how are You?” Students inevitably guess correctly and are quite surprised that they can understand what I am saying. Once they have caught on, we can then create contextual situations and apply the proper intonation. A mini-dialogue I might have with a student in front of the class, in which my role would be B, is as follows:

A: What are you doing this weekend?
B: This weekend? Nothing special. I’ll probably just hang OUt.
A: OK. Give me a call.
B: Alright.

After the classmates have heard the dialogue, I will ask them, “Where is the change?” Hopefully, they will hear “OUt” on the first try. I will then mark it on the board. The rise in pitch at the beginning of “OUt” rather than on the word “hang” is essential to the intelligibility of the idiom as well as to the rest of the dialogue. Teachers play a vital role here. Once an idiom is presented, either the students or the teacher should provide/elicit the proper intonation and then mark it. This marking system is especially important for non-native-English-speaking teachers who may be unfamiliar with the proper intonation of idioms.

The good news regarding idiomatic phrases is that there are general intonation patterns. In an emphasized two-syllable word, such as “brainer” in the expression “no-brainer,” the word tends to receive a higher tone or pitch on the first syllable. It’s a no-BRAIner. In the case of a one-syllable word, such as “cake” in the expression “piece of cake,” there is a higher tone on the first half of the word: It’s a piece of CAke. In either case, the rising intonation at the beginning is then followed by a falling intonation. Saying the idiom in front of your students in slow motion can really help to clarify this, and it is also good for a laugh. When students know the proper intonation, communication can be achieved even with less-than-perfect pronunciation. This is good news for our students, as it is generally much easier to change the pitch of a word than to pronounce the word properly.

3. Mini Dialogues
The mini dialogues written by the students, followed by an in-class role play, are not only a lot of fun but practical and effective exercises for ESL students (Nunan, 2003; Scott & Ytreberg, 2000). They could be done as homework or in class individually, in pairs, or in groups. These dialogues supply the context necessary to achieve natural usage and effective communication (Nippold & Martin, 1989). The task is to write mini dialogues, where each dialogue contains at least one idiom from class, either from our text or from one of the students’ BYOI. There should be just enough context (4-6 lines) for the exchange to be meaningful (Nippold & Martin, 1989).

Make sure the students understand that even though these dialogues are being written down, they should be striving for spoken and not written English. I also ask them to consider the roles of the speakers as in the following student dialogue (the professor is putting on her coat as her student enters the office):

A: Excuse me. Professor? Are you busy?
B: I’m running LAte, actually. I’ll be here tomorrow.
A: Ok, thank you.
B: Alright.

This exchange meets the criteria in that it is a spoken dialogue, the roles are defined, at least one idiom is used, and the idiom is marked with the proper intonation. Once their dialogues are done, I collect, correct, and return them. Afterward, I circulate, taking student questions on my corrections. Then, I have each pair practice and perform at least one of their dialogues in front of the class. Eye contact, body language (students must sit facing each other), and voice management should be emphasized during practice time. Be sure to circulate, as some students will simply read the dialogue together. I walk around with a blank sheet of 8½ x 11 paper, which I use to cover up the dialogue they are working on. This forces them to look up and, hopefully, at each other. The students then perform at the front of the class. I act as the director, yelling “Action!” and opening/closing my cell phone like a director’s slate. The class listens for the idiom used in the dialogue. This is always fun, as students enjoy watching their classmates perform. I like to supply props/wigs to spice it up. Be prepared for the cameras to come out! I also quiz them on the idiom and the intonation right after each dialogue.

English continues to be a global language. Proper knowledge and usage of idioms are powerful tools for anyone requiring English in daily communication. By focusing on the proper intonation for our students to achieve maximum intelligibility, we are better equipping them for the English-speaking world. It is important for us as teachers to go the extra mile.


Cooper, T. C. (1998). Teaching idioms. Foreign Language Annals, 31(2), 255-266.

Cruttenden, M. (1986). Intonation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Irujo, S. (1986). Don’t put your leg in your mouth: Transfer in the acquisition of idioms in a second language. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 287-304.

Nippold, M. A., & Martin, S. T. (1989). Idiom interpretation in isolation versus context: A developmental study with adolescents. Journal Speech & Hearing Research, 32, 59-66.

Nunan, D. (2003). Practical English teaching. New York: McGraw Hill.

Scott, W. A., & Ytreberg, L. H. (2000). Teaching English to children. New York: Longman.

About the Author

Andrew Schneider has been teaching ESL/EFL for 20 years, having taught
in Japan, Spain, and the United States. He currently teaches medical students in Kanazawa, Japan.