Researching the origins of idioms is not only a great way to expand students’ vocabulary, but it also exposes them to those “fuzzy problems” that just don’t have a simple answer.
Ask students to find the origins of “the whole nine yards,” and they’ll find dozens of answers:
- machine gun belts are nine yards long
- using nine shipyards to build a liberty ship
- the volume of a cement mixer
- the full yardage of the sails of a ship
- nine tribes referred to as Montagnards (or ‘yards) in Vietnam
Which one is right? Which are the least likely? Why don’t we know!?
It’s simply an unsolved problem, which is something our students rarely deal with. We typically ask them to re-solve already solved problems.
Finding The Idioms
To get your students digging into idiom origins, you’ll first need some idioms. I do offer 275 idioms organized into 53 weekly lists as part of my Advanced Vocabulary Guide PDF.
Some Useful Idiom Sites
And here are some useful sites for researching the origin of idioms:
An Idiom Origin System
Keep it limited. Don’t ask them to research five idioms in one night. You’ll get shoddy work. Do one idiom at a time so they can go deeper, and bear in mind that some idioms just don’t have very interesting origins.
Require multiple resources. There are lots of different opinions on the origin of idioms. Make sure students are using a variety of sources to come to their conclusions. This also reinforces the fact that a single resource can easily lead one astray.
Practice Paraphrasing. At first, you’ll get copy and pasted, long-winded Wikipedia paragraphs that no one understands. Help your students find age-appropriate resources and paraphrase the results in words they understand. This would be a great time for some teacher modeling!
Individual Turn In. Since this might be a nightly activity, try to avoid more paperwork. Here are some alternative turn-in methods – note, they all help you see students’ understanding in advance:
- I had my students email me their findings
- Later, I used our class blog to “turn in” this homework (students left their responses as comments on a post I made).
- You could set up a Google Form to have everyone turn their work in. Here’s a sample form I made to see what I mean.
Small Groups Quickly have students verify their findings with each other. This will either confirm their beliefs or stir up some controversy.
Whole Group Share out as a class. See if you can reach a consensus on the original meaning of the idiom or determine that the origin is a mystery.
What Does This Do?
- Teaches authentic vocabulary tools that enrich writing and speaking.
- Increases reading and listening comprehension. Many idioms are commonly used, but their meanings are impossible to infer.
- Helps kids understand that websites may be misleading, incomplete, or simply wrong!
- Keeps students working with complex, fuzzy problems that involve collaboration and learning from peers.
- Teaches that language changes over time: a complex truth students need to understand in order to read classics by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Twain.
Plus, this is simply a fun activity that meets students’ needs better than writing out spelling lists five times each. Researching one idiom a night is a great example of assigning gifted students more complex work rather than just more work.
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