Adventures in Idioms

Throughout the month of January, the Grade Two and Grade Three students of LEU have been “diving deep” into an exploration of figurative language, and idioms quickly became the “hot topic”. An idiom is a commonly used phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning different from its literal meaning, such as “cost an arm and a leg”, or “think outside of the box”. There are tens of thousands of idioms in the English language. Every language contains them, but our “native tongue” is so “jam-packed” with idioms that they are a main reason why it is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. Non-native speakers often find themselves “in a pickle” or completely “left in the dark” when attempting to decipher the cryptic meanings woven throughout our idiomatic style of communication. 

An idiom cannot be taken at face value, nor can its meaning be deduced by examining its individual words. It is a figure of speech that must be understood as a whole and stored in a person’s memory as a single lexical item independent of its literal reading. The children were particularly intrigued by this idea because it required them to look at language from “a new angle” in contrast to many of their experiences thus far. For example, the Montessori system for learning grammar is very methodical and directs the children’s focus to the individual parts of speech. They are accustomed to analyzing or creating sentences via their understanding of the function of each component word. Even so, our language lovers did not “shy away” from such a “foreign concept”. They “jumped right in” and once they had “wrapped their heads around it” they were “off and running”, implementing idioms in their writing and finding idioms all throughout their reading materials.

As their idiom detection skills have become increasingly “fine-tuned”, the children are uncovering idioms “at every turn”. Lately, presentations, class meetings, and conversations have been interrupted by enthusiastic exclamations of “Idiom!”, but we have temporarily and happily “turned a blind eye” to these minor breaches of grace and courtesy, given that they are in the interest of education. 

We “got the [idiom] ball rolling” with an introduction using our extensive set of idiom cards. The children matched them into groups of three, consisting of a card with an image of a literal depiction of an idiom, a card on which the idiom itself was written, and a card with the figurative definition of the idiom.

Next, children decided to work together to keep a running record of all the idioms they thought of or encountered. Three of our large flip chart pages were soon “chock-full” of idioms!

Then we decided it would be fun to do an idiom photo shoot. They came up with ideas for acting out the literal meaning of various idioms by using the resources at their disposal at the school. Their creativity and humour really “knocked our socks off”, and the children “had a blast”.

Although January is coming to an end, our study of idioms – along with other forms of figurative language – will continue. The Montessori Elementary curriculum is based on helping the child develop an understanding and appreciation of how all phenomena are interconnected. Idioms provides us with yet another wonderful opportunity to integrate all areas of the curriculum to help the children cultivate this connective way of thinking. Here are a few examples of how our study of idioms will branch out in the coming months:

  • We will explore idioms that are unique to specific countries. Learning their meanings will enable the children to discover a lot about the different cultures and the places.
  • We will research the origins of various idioms and commonly used similes and metaphors, giving the children a window of insight into what was happening during a particular historical moment.
  • We will conduct scientific inquiry and experiments inspired by specific idioms:
    • “Faster than the speed of light” – What is the speed of light? Is there actually anything faster?
    • “On the same wavelength” – What is a wavelength? How are wavelengths measured?
    • “Up in smoke” – What exactly is smoke? Why does it go up?
    • “Heart of Gold” – If your heart was made of gold, how much would it weigh? How much would it be worth?

The possibilities are endless, and this limitless approach to language will continue to “open minds” and “broaden horizons”. So many more adventures await!  

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