How to Learn Idioms and Expressions in Context

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It's important to learn and use idioms and expressions in context. Of course, idioms are not always easy to understand. There are idiom and expression resources that can help with definitions, but reading them in short stories can also provide context that makes them come more alive. Try reading the story one time to understand the gist without using the idiom definitions. On your second reading, use the definitions to help you understand the text while learning new idioms. After you understand the story, take the quiz at the end of each reading to test your knowledge. Teachers can print out these short stories and use in class in combination with teaching ideas provided at the end of this resource list.

Idioms and Expressions in Context Stories

John's Keys to Success
A story about a man was an accomplished businessman and happily gives advice to young people he mentors.

Odd Man Out
A story about a man who gossiped a little too much at parties making him the "odd man out" anytime he joined the fun.

Young and Free
A short story about what it takes to be successful in a small company. It's good preparation for young adult English learners who are college age.

My Successful Friend
Here is a story about a man's friend who has had a very successful career.

The Road to Success
Here is a short essay on how to succeed in today's difficult economic environment. It makes good reading for business English classes.

For Teachers

Use these idioms in context stories with your advanced-level classes to provide context for learning common idioms in English. Each short story of two to three paragraphs provides approximately 15 idioms. These idioms are then defined following the story followed by a short quiz testing a number of idioms from the selection.

Following this introduction to the idioms in context, you can practice use of the idioms in a number of ways. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask students to write their own short stories using the idioms in context.
  • Have students write dialogues using the idioms to act out in class.
  • Group students together to create their own gap fill quizzes for other groups.
  • Write up questions using the idioms presented and discuss as a class or in groups.
  • Make up situations that fit each idiom on-the-fly and ask students to choose the idiom that fits best.

Learning Idioms in Context

 You might wonder how you can recognize an idiom when you are reading a book, online or perhaps watching TV. Here are a few tips on how you can spot an idiom:

Idioms don't actually mean what they say.

That's right, the actual meaning of the words don't necessarily indicate the meaning of the idiom. Let's take a look at a few:

  • Remember my son, the early bird catches the worm. 

This idiom means that it's important to get up and get to work in order to succeed in life. Of course, early birds probably catch worms as well! However, the meaning has nothing to little to do with the words. 

Idioms can seem out of context.

You can be sure you've spotted an idiom if you notice that the words have little to do with the context. For example, let's imagine that you're in a business meeting. Someone says:

  • Well, it'll be smooth sailing after this quarter.

If you're in a business meeting, you don't expect to be talking about sailing on the open sea. This is an example of something out of context. It doesn't fit in. That's a sure sign that it might be an idiom. 

Idioms are often phrasal verbs.

Phrasal verbs can be literal or figurative. Literal means that the words mean exactly what they say. For example:

  • I picked up the bag.

In this case. 'pick up' is literal. Phrasal verbs, can also be figurative 'pick up' also means to learn:

  • She picked up some Spanish in Madrid. 

Idioms are often figurative phrasal verbs as well. Use these queues and you'll start recognizing idioms in context everywhere you look and listen. 

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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "How to Learn Idioms and Expressions in Context." ThoughtCo, Sep. 25, 2020, Beare, Kenneth. (2020, September 25). How to Learn Idioms and Expressions in Context. Retrieved from Beare, Kenneth. "How to Learn Idioms and Expressions in Context." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).