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Spotlight on Figurative Language Idioms
Ages: 8-14   Grades: 3-9

Brilliantly written and highly contextual lessons are sure to help students with language disorders become more expressive and effective communicators.


  • Understand the meaning of idioms, the most used of the figurative language types
  • Use idioms to develop wordplay, visualization, and playful language skills
  • Improve interaction with peers by understanding how and when to use idioms
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Understanding and using idioms are tough for students with language disorders - until now.  The depth of instruction and highly contextual lessons in this Spotlight will put your students at the top of their language game.

Based on the research of when and how students learn idioms, each chapter:

  • is organized by contextual supporting theme
  • uses strategies to assist students in noticing and understanding idioms
  • includes examples and information to make learning "stick"
  • includes in-depth practice  

Chapter themes are Action, Animals, Body Parts, Clothing, and Food.  The lessons focus on:

  • how idioms relate to one another
  • how an idiom may have a similar/opposite meaning to other idioms
  • the emotions typically associated with the idiom
  • relating personal experiences that reflect the meaning of an idiom

You may purchase Spotlight on Figurative Language Idioms individually or as part of the Spotlight on Figurative Language 6-book set.  The 6-book set consists of:

Spotlight on Figurative Language Colorful Language

Spotlight on Figurative Language Idioms

Spotlight on Figurative Language Indirect Language

Spotlight on Figurative Language Metaphors

Spotlight on Figurative Language Multiple Meanings

Spotlight on Figurative Language Similes

Copyright © 2012

40 pages

The research base for specific forms of figurative language comprehension and usage is sparse, but "metaphor" and "metaphoric language" have been explored to some depth.  The types of figurative language presented in these books can be classified under the general umbrella of metaphor, and the evidence under that label is relevant to the series.

  • Reynolds and Ortony (1980) investigated the comprehension of similes and metaphors by second- through sixth-grade typical children.  They found evidence of an ability to understand figurative language by children at all grade levels when adequate contextual supports were provided (Seidenberg & Bernstein, 1986).
  • Many learning-disabled children appear to have the requisite abilities and strategies for metaphoric comprehension in their cognitive repertoires but fail to spontaneously and appropriately access and apply them when they should . . . learning-disabled children often fail to spontaneously identify the need to use appropriate, cognitive processing strategies that are well within their cognitive competence (Seidenberg & Bernstein, 1986).
  • Metaphoric competence reflects an individual's cognitive level, abstract reasoning ability, and linguistic competence.  The likelihood of [identifying] nonliteral responses [in figurative contexts] depends primarily on these competencies but is also influenced by an individual's familiarity with the specific figurative forms being studied (Lee & Kamhi, 1990).
  • The ability to understand the motives and intentions of others is essential.  Assisting children with ASDs to decode figurative language may improve their social skills in relating to others (Mackay & Shaw, 2004).
  • Understanding a speaker's communicative intention is a central goal of communication and involves going beyond the literal meaning of an utterance.  Children who do not understand these intentions have major communicative difficulties.  Often, they are rejected by their peers, further reducing opportunities for interaction.  Perhaps they struggle on with their frustration and confusion unnoticed, as the people around them continue to use figurative language.  Our closer attention to the specifics of their difficulties should help them when they try to work out the meanings and intentions in the figurative language of their communicative partners (Mackay & Shaw, 2004).

Spotlight on Figurative Language Idioms incorporates these principles and is also based on expert professional practice.


Lee, R.F., & Kamhi, A.G. (1990). Metaphoric competence in children with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(8), 476-482.

Mackay, G., & Shaw, A. (2004). A comparative study of figurative language in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Child Language Teaching & Therapy, 20(1), 13-32. doi: 10.1191/0265659004ct261oa

Reynolds, R.E., & Ortony, A. (1980). Some issues in the measurement of children's comprehension of metaphorical language. Child Development, 51, 1110-1119.

Seidenberg, P.L., & Bernstein, D.K. (1986). The comprehension of similes and metaphors by learning disabled and nonlearning-disabled children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 17, 219-229.


Linda Bowers, Paul F. Johnson


Linda Bowers has been a speech-language pathologist since 1973 and co-owner, co-founder, and researcher for LinguiSystems since 1977.  She loves to cook, travel, and be with friends and family.  She is the proud mother and grandmother of a wonderful daughter and two wickedly funny grandsons.

Paul F. Johnson has developed products and software for LinguiSystems since 1990.  He is the author or co-author of many LinguiSystems products, including titles in the Spotlight, 50 Quick-Play, and No-Glamour series.  He has particular interests in developing critical thinking, social, and communication skills in children and adults, and feels that solid written and verbal communication skills are not only essential to social and career success, but lead to more fulfilling lives and relationships.

He lives in rural Illinois with his amazing wife and their three ridiculous children.  In his spare time, Paul reads a lot, plays the guitar, and is an avid gardener and cook.


No use beating around the bush.  Idioms enrich our language.  And not just once in a blue moon either.  You can crack someone up every day by saying some doozy like, "Elvis has left the building" or "This dinner is finger-lickin' good."  Whatever your idiom preference, you can go for broke by spicing up your language with these verbal high fives.

Okay, enough is enough!  You get the point about how much fun idioms are.  We wanted to dig further to find out the history of idioms and idiomatic expressions.  What we found was that each expression has its own history.  For instance, brand new comes from metal-working smiths who put their brands on their original metal works.  Similarly, a backhanded compliment comes from the backhand stroke in tennis.  That left stroke is a gesture to the left side of the body which, in Latin, means sinister.  Hence, backhanded means roundabout, indirect, or devious.

That left us with the idea of looking at past research to find an explanation for when and how kids learn idioms.  Here's what we found:

  • Pollio, Barlow, Fine, and Pollio (1977) analyzed 200,000 words from debates, psychotherapy sessions, and adult compositions.  Their findings showed that idioms were the most used of figurative language types AND 4.08 idioms were used per minute.  Cooper (1999) found that 3.0 idioms were used per minute when he analyzed television programs.
  • There are two types of idioms, syntactically frozen and syntactically flexible.  Frozen idioms are those used in just one syntactical form (high five, better late than never, etc.).  They are easier to learn because of this.  Flexible idioms are those that retain their integrity even when they are changed to a passive voice (find my voice vs. find one's voice).
  • Levorato and Cacciari (1992) and Nippold and Martin (1989) found that learners of all ages understood and used idioms with greater efficacy when the idioms were supported by context.
  • Until the age of 9, children interpret idioms literally (Cooper, 1999).

Armed with this knowledge, we organized these chapters by themes because of the contextual support they provide.  The themes are:

  • Action (e.g., jump down your throat, break the ice)
  • Animals (e.g., let the cat out of the bag, came out of his shell)
  • Body Parts (e.g., button your lip, keep a straight face)
  • Clothing (e.g., hot under the collar, lose your shirt)
  • Food (e.g., full of beans, chew the fat)

One of the weaknesses we find in other idiom programs is the lack of depth of the practice provided.  Defining the idiom is only the beginning of integrating it into a student's understanding.  The tasks in this book focus on how idioms relate to one another and how they have similar and opposite meanings to other idioms.  For example, if your lips are sealed, you're keeping something under your hat rather than spilling the beans.  Many of the tasks in this book ask students to identify idioms with similar and opposite meanings, identify emotions associated with idioms, and relate personal experiences that reflect the meaning of an idiom.

Learning about idioms is a great opportunity for exploring wordplay, visualization, and just having a ball with language.  Because so many students are locked into concrete methods of expression, they lack the ability to interact with their peers through the fun and flexibility of figurative language.  We hope you find Spotlight on Figurative Language Idioms an important tool in helping your students become more expressive and effective communicators.

Linda & Paul


Bhalla, J. (2009). I'm not hanging noodles on your ears and other intriguing idioms from around the world. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Cooper, T.C. (1999). Processing of idioms by L2 learners of English. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 233-262. doi: 10.2307/3587719

Leedy, L., & Street, P. (2003). There's a frog in my throat: 440 animal sayings a little bird told me. New York, NY: Holiday House, Inc.

Levorato, M.C., & Cacciari, C. (1992). Children's comprehension and production of idioms: The role of context and familiarity. Journal of Child Language, 19(2), 415-433. doi: 10.1017/S0305000900011478

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

Pollio, H.R., Barlow, J.M., Fine, H.J., & Pollio, M.R. (1977). Psychology and the poetics of growth: Figurative language in psychology, psychotherapy, and education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Terban, M. (1983). In a pickle and other funny idioms. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Terban, M. (1996). Scholastic dictionary of idioms. New York, NY: Scholastic Reference.