TOEFL IBT Preparation: Idioms in English

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Why Journal?

English idioms are among the hardest things for ESL/EFL students to learn, and there are far too many idioms to teach all of them to a class. Most TOEFL preparation courses don’t give you nearly enough time to go over all the idioms your students will need to be successful in the exam because the breadth of material that must be covered can be overwhelming for teachers and students alike. Giving out lists of idioms that might appear on the TOEFL can be helpful but are too long to work with in class effectively and are boring for self-study. Additionally, students don’t just need to know simple definitions for idioms—they must also understand the contexts in which they might be used and the paralinguistic cues that might affect their meaning.

Keeping a journal of idioms is a great way to encourage autonomy and language awareness in ESF/EFL students. By studying on their own, students will be able to explore a lot more material than can be covered in their lessons, and they can begin to train themselves in listening to and understanding the kind of English that will be encountered in the TOEFL exam. Not only will this help students’ listening scores but it will also help them use English more naturally in the speaking section; and, even the reading section of the TOEFL might contain idiomatic expressions. Additionally, many students are quite interested in learning about English idioms, so keeping an idiom journal outside of class can be very motivating for them amidst their otherwise grueling preparation process.

The Lesson

To prepare for the first idiom journal lesson, have students go online to look at some websites about idioms in English. There are some good lists at Wattpadd and English Daily. Ask the students to bring at least two new idioms to class. Make sure they learn not only the meaning of the idioms but their context and use as well. (This may require them to do a bit of online research). Students should be aware of if the idiom is usually spoken or written, if it is used formally or informally (or both), and who it might be used by (teenagers, professors, anyone, etc.).

Ask the students to bring a small notebook to the lesson, as they will begin their idiom journal in class.

In pairs or small groups, ask the students to tell each other about the idioms they learned. While they are doing this, put a grid up on the board. This will be the “skeleton” for the information about idioms they will record in their journals. It should look something like this:

  • Idiom:
  • Meaning:
  • Context:
  • Who Uses It:
  • Other Information (For example, is it slang? Impolite? Funny? Can the meaning change depending on the context?):

Ask the students to copy this grid in the first page of their journals. Have a few students share their idioms with the whole class. Fill in the grid on the board with the necessary information while the students write it in their journals. Have them fill in their journals with the idioms they just shared with each other in their groups or pairs.

For many students, the last section of this grid (“Other Information”) will be the hardest to understand, so you might give some examples of idioms that can change depending on how or where they are said. For example, “Get out of here!” when shouted means “Leave this place immediately” and is quite rude, but “Get out of here!” said jokingly with smile means “What you’ve just said is surprising or unbelievable” and is used in informal conversations.

If you have extra time and reliable video equipment, prepare a recording of short clips from films or TV shows. Make sure your clips show a variety of contexts and that each one contains at least one idiom. For the first few clips, tell the students the idioms they should watch for. At the end of each clip, pause the video and ask them about the idiom. What do they think it means? Who said it? What was the context? Can they guess any other information about it? Afterwards, play a few clips and see if they can hear the idioms themselves. Some students may find this quite difficult, so you can help them out by playing the clips again and telling them what they are listening for. Put the idioms from the video clips on the board, and have the students fill in the grid in their journals in groups or small pairs.


As an ongoing homework assignment, have students record at least three to five idioms a week in their journals that are to be checked weekly. If you are teaching in an English-speaking country, encourage students to ask native speaker friends about idioms and to listen in on conversations between native speakers as well as to get idioms from TV and movies. If you are teaching in a non-English-speaking country, students can get quite a lot of information about idioms from TV, films, and the Internet. Students without consistent access to these can even look for idioms in English reading material, particularly in texts that contain dialogue and conversations.

Once a week, before collecting the journals, have the students share and discuss their new idioms in groups or pairs. Instruct them to record the new idioms in their journals. Be sure to have a few students share their idioms so the whole class can discuss them.