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Figures of Speech and Idiomatic Expressions

Grades 4-8 Comprehensive Vocabulary

Comprehensive Vocabulary

How do figures of speech and idiomatic expressions fit into vocabulary acquisition? ELA teachers do a great job of teaching the traditional figures of speech, metaphors and similes and many or the poetic devices, such as alliteration and personification in the context of literature and poetry. Check out a nice list with examples of the “Top 20” figures of speech with examples. 

However, most of us give short shrift to the colloquial forms of language which actually fill more literature and poetry than the venerable figures of speech. For example, in Shakespeare’s Richard III:

Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.

Dispatch, my lord [Hastings]; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.


The authors of the Common Core State Standards recognize the essential roles that colloquial expressions play in our English language. See the varied examples detailed in the Language Strand (L.5.a.). Did you know that the eighth grade standards include puns? I love that.

I especially appreciate the authors’ emphasis on teaching idiomatic expressions. Idiomatic expressions are more than just the archaic “A stitch in time saves nine” examples that I used to teach, one per day, and have my students illustrate for Open House.

In fact, our non-literal language fills what we read, say, and speak. For example, I love that idiom of ours: through the door. It always gets some head-shaking in my EL, SDAIE, ELD, ESL, etc. classes. But all languages are filled with colloquial language.

For example, when I arrived in Mexico City to really learn the language some years back, I already had six years of middle school and high school Spanish, one college conversational Spanish class and one Spanish-only literature class. I felt pretty confident with the language.

Upon my arrival I found that my new friends understood me just fine. However, I only understood about 50% of what was being said to me. My Spanish instruction was failing me. I knew the formal, but not the informal language.

My Mexican roommate asked me if I had a chamarca. It was 90 degrees out and humid, as well. Why was he asking if I had a jacket? I looked at him strangely, and he explained that he had substituted the slang, charmarca, for his novia. You see, chamarca is slang for girlfriend; while novia was the formal word for girlfriend I learned in Spanish classes back in the U.S.

Learning to really learn the language was all about learning the idiomatic expressions. Spanish uses a lot.

The Common Core State Standards emphasize a balanced approach to vocabulary development. Unlike some of the other ELA Standards, the vocabulary Standards are quite specific and especially so with figures of speech. Although much of our Tier 2 (academic language) vocabulary is acquired through reading challenging text, other methods of vocabulary acquisition are best taught through explicit, direct instruction. Take a moment to skim the vocabulary standards and see how you’re doing in your class or classes this year.

  • Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.)
  • Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.)
  • Language Resources (L.4.c.d.)
  • Figures of Speech (L.5.a.)
  • Word Relationships (L.5.b.)
  • Connotations (L.5.c.)
  • Academic Language Words (L.6.0)

How to Teach Figures of Speech and Idiomatic Expressions

In my five vocabulary programs for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (details follow), I use the wide variety of figures of speech (stated and suggested by the Language Standards) to teach students what the figure of speech is, what it means, and how to use it properly. My vocabulary worksheets require students to practice the figure of speech in the writing context, using surrounding context clues to show the meaning of the figure of speech.

Using Figures of Speech

Figures of Speech


For full-year vocabulary programs which include multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), Greek and Latin morphology with Morphology Walls (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0), check out the assessment-based grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Comprehensive Vocabulary.

Get the Grades 4,5,6,7,8 Vocabulary Sequence of Instruction FREE Resource:

Get the Greek and Latin Morphology Walls FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Academic Language Assessment FREE Resource:

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