Standard Lesson

Figurative Language: Teaching Idioms

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 45-minute sessions
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By developing a clear understanding of figurative language, students can further comprehend texts that contain metaphorical and lexical meanings beyond the basic word level. In this lesson, students explore figurative language with a focus on the literal versus the metaphorical translations of idioms. Through read-alouds, teacher modeling, and student-centered activities that are presented in the classroom, students will further develop their understanding of figurative language.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • By knowing the origins of idioms, students can more easily figure out the metaphorical meanings.

  • Discussions focused on the origins of words and phrases help students understand how language transforms over time and, thereby, enables them to hypothesize in a more meaningful way the meaning of unfamiliar words or phrases.
  • When teachers encourage students' natural inclinations toward narrative forms of meaning making, in conjunction with text-based lessons, the students appear more engaged with textual content and demonstrate less resistance to reading material that might otherwise be challenging or frustrating.

  • Students respond to texts through narrative approaches, encouraging them to engage in role-playing and to allow memories, images, and stories to surface as they begin to develop interpretations.

  • Students are more likely to understand, recall, and care about what a metaphor means after having played with the word through a highly personalized, storied exploration of their own experiences of metaphorical language.


Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • In a Pickle and Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban (Houghton Mifflin, 1983)

  • More Parts by Tedd Arnold (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2001)

  • Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms by Marvin Terban (Scholastic, 1998)

  • Drawing paper, colored pencils, crayons, and markers

  • Multiple computers with Internet access


Student Objectives

Students will

  • Explore the use of figurative language in texts

  • Identify the literal representations of idioms through class discussions, drawings, and writing

  • Discuss connections between idioms and their personal experiences

  • Research the origins of selected idioms to reinforce the metaphorical meanings

  • Show an understanding of the metaphorical meanings of selected idioms by using them in sentences

Session 1

1. Read aloud More Parts by Tedd Arnold. Discuss the text with students, asking about the idioms presented and what they mean in comparison to what the main character translates them to mean.

2. Brainstorm other idioms that students have heard. To get the discussion started, ask students what they know about the phrases "it's raining cats and dogs" and "saved by the bell." Ask them to draw upon their personal experiences and background knowledge to discuss these idioms and any others that they can think of. Prompting questions might include:
  • Have you heard anyone in your family (like your parents or grandparents) use idioms when speaking?

  • Which idioms do you use?

  • Have you heard idioms used in television programs or movies?
For each personal experience, ask the student to describe how the idiom was used and how he or she was able to decipher the figurative meaning.

3. On the board or chart paper, list all of the idioms mentioned during the class discussion and refer to the list as needed during the remainder of the lesson. Discuss how some idioms are passed down through generations. This discussion gives students a preliminary introduction to the historical meaning of idioms.

4. Develop a class definition of idioms. Write the definition on chart paper and hang the sheet on the wall for reference purposes.

5. Have students select their favorite idiom from the list and draw a literal representation of the phrase. Model this activity on chart paper by selecting an idiom and roughly drawing a literal representation of it. For example, the phrase “it's raining cats and dogs” can be shown by drawing a picture of a storm cloud with cats and dogs falling as raindrops. Instruct students to include the literal drawing on one side of a sheet of paper and to write the idiom on the back. (Students may need to complete this activity for homework).

Session 2

1. Read aloud In a Pickle and Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban. Discuss the metaphorical meanings of the idioms presented in this text.

2. Have students present the literal representations of their favorite idioms while their classmates try to guess the idioms that are represented in the drawings and determine their metaphorical meanings. To determine the metaphorical meanings, students can think back to the discussions in Session 1 where their classmates shared their personal experiences with the various idioms.

3. Have students, working in pairs, select four to five idioms to research using the Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms or another resource.

4. After researching the idioms, ask each pair of students to select one idiom from their list, share its origins, and how its origins relate to the metaphorical meaning of the phrase. To ensure understanding of the metaphorical meaning, have students use each idiom in a sentence as well.

5. Encourage a class discussion on how knowing the historical context of idioms and reflecting on personal experiences can make it easier to understand the metaphorical meanings of these phrases.

Session 3

1. Have students go online to the interactive Eye on Idioms where they can view additional literal representations of selected idioms. In this activity, students are asked to complete the sentence by selecting the correct idiom from the list, determine the metaphorical meaning of the idiom, and then use the idiom in a sentence to show their understanding of its meaning. Students should be reminded to print their work after completing each idiom exercise since their work cannot be saved electronically.

2. Once students have completed the online activity, ask them to research the origins of each idiom and type a short passage to explain how the origins of the phrase relates to its metaphorical meaning. Students can also write about any personal experiences with each idiom and how those experiences helped them to determine the metaphorical meaning.

3. As a final project, students can compile their printed idioms and typed passages and bind them together on opposing pages to create an idiom book. This book makes a great reference for students to use for their own reading and writing in the future.


  • Develop an "Idiom Wall" where students can post idioms that they discover while reading. (You may choose to offer extra credit points for finding idioms during reading activities.)

  • Have students continue to research the history of particular idioms and the original context in which they were developed using resources such as the Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Evaluate each student’s ability to:

  • Participate in class discussions

  • Draw upon previous experiences to discuss the usage and meaning of idioms

  • Draw literal representations of selected idioms

  • Correctly explain the historical origins of selected idioms and use the origins to further understand the metaphorical meanings

  • Recognize and explain the metaphorical meanings of selected idioms from the interactive Eye on Idioms

  • Use selected idioms in sentences to show an understanding of their meanings