Updated: Apr 28
Having taught in Year 6 for many years, I was well aware of the endless simile and alliteration lessons I had hammered into children so that every piece of writing contained boring cliches rather than specifically useful figurative expressions. He didn’t run as fast a cheetah I’m afraid Jacob. Sorry Sophie, she wasn’t as quick as lightening either. No Chen, it wasn’t as big as a really big thing either. These tokenistic lessons were box ticking exercises making a piece of writing an uncomfortable jigsaw made of random attempts at figurative language squashed together like a squalid birds nest rather than a luxury bed, if you’ll excuse the simile. Similes and metaphors are hard to get right and just because the comparisons work, it doesn’t mean they work in the context of the writing. Historical awareness, setting and character all have to be considered. However, get these right, and a clever use of imagination, and they can be inspired!
We then come to the forgotten elements of figurative language: hyperbole and idioms. Hands up who spends much time on these? Hyperbole, as a form of exaggeration, is a great way to add amusing images to the reader mind. Check out our silly video here for a start!
Then there are idioms. Why start teaching them as late as Year 5 or 6? The English language is littered with idioms. We use them every single day and barely realise it. I teach in a school with 52 languages where English is an additional language for nearly every child. You soon notice yourself doing it! I think we should start in KS1 with simple everyday idioms:
Let the cat out of the bag
Wolf in sheep's clothing
Icing on the cake
Fish out of water etc.
This gets children to link real meaning to simple figurative expressions. Last term, the headteacher placed an ‘Idiom of the Day’ on her board in her office and children would walk past confused, intrigued and peering in wondering what on earth they meant. It was a great idea!
I started reading about the different idioms we use everyday and fascinating stories from the Romans, Greeks and Vikings emerged. The Middle Ages were a dark but rich time for language development and the Georgians and Victorians added plenty of well known phrases too. We can't underestimate the influence Shakespeare has had on our language too. Since I've been making these terns of phrase more explicit to younger children, they have enjoyed seeing language as something intrinsically more complex and fascinating that they did previously (and sometimes more gruesome too).
By using phrases from the Bible, North American and both World War I and World War II, before long, children were hooked on the historical stories behind each phrase. They started using phrases like ‘crocodile tears’ and ‘the bitter end’ in their writing rather than designing awkward comparisons in their similes, making their writing immediately sound more natural.
We now have a set of idioms for every year group in Key Stage 2 and so we have been able to start looking at our own language as a brilliant amalgamation of historical phrases. From year 3 to year 6, we’ve linked specific idioms to our topics and are now exploring language in a rich and fascinating context.
Now there’s a turn up for the books!
Q: What's the meaning of the phrase 'A turn up for the books'?
A: An unexpected piece of good fortune.
Since the 1820s, the term 'turn-up' has been used to mean 'a surprise; an example of good fortune'. The reference was to cards or dice, which were 'turned up' by chance. Specifically, the 'turn up' was referred to in the game of cribbage. At the start of a game of cribbage a member of one team cuts the pack and a member of the other turns up the top card. If this is a Jack, the second team gets extra points. Holding the Jack of the suit that is turned up also merits a point.
Now, I didn't know that!
To download 'An Idiom a Day', head over to our ENGLISH page or to buy the whole pack, just CLICK HERE.