A daddy longlegs recently moved into my car. With three kids in the car, ages 5, 7, and 8, it was cause for alarm. In spite of my explaining the benefits of spiders and that our skin is too tough for a daddy longlegs to bite, they’d lift up their legs and nervously watch for the spider.

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Saying “There’s the daddy longlegs!” became a game—soon a tedious one. After several false alerts, I commented, “Let’s not cry wolf.”  Hunter asked, “What do you mean by ‘cry wolf’?” Good question. I managed to stretch the telling of the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” just long enough to get home. The spider, probably out of fear by now, stayed hidden.

Part of being a literate adult is having knowledge of such stories so that hearing “Don’t cry wolf” makes sense. Idiomatic language doesn’t just come from fables. We teachers use idiomatic language all the time: That was a piece of cake! Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Curiosity killed the cat. Hold your horses. It’s in the bag. Keep your chin up. Imagine what it must be like to be new to speaking English and to be told You’re pulling my leg.

Often our students won’t stop and ask us what an idiom or regionalism means because they don’t want to show their lack of understanding. Fables are the perfect starting place for teaching idiomatic language. If you don’t have a collection of fables on your shelf, you can find them online. Once you’ve shared some with students, find a copy of Arnold Lobel’s Fables for a humorous twist on the traditional fables.

Then have your students become Idiom Detectives. Challenge them to listen carefully to conversations and note when someone uses a sentence that can’t be interpreted literally. Watching sports is perfect for this: Go for broke, in the ballpark, out of the park, home run, dropped the ball.

After some experience with idioms, write the word hit on the board. How many examples can the students find that begin with hit? Hit the books. Hit the hay. Hit the sack. Hit the nail on the head. Hit the road. Hit it off. Hit the ground running. Soon students will be filling notebooks or an Idiom Wall with examples.

As for that daddy longlegs, it disappeared for a few days. Then it dropped down from a visor. Instead of the usual alert, Hunter said, “There’s the daddy longlegs. What was that story about the wolf?” I started with “There once was a boy who was tending his sheep….”

“That’s right,” Hunter interrupted. “His sheep got eaten by the wolf.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly the point, but it’s like any good story. It stands up to—and needs—repetition.

Your Turn!

The development of idiomatic language can sometimes be as humorous as it is rewarding!  We’d love to know your funny stories—every teacher has them—of misunderstood or misconstrued idioms.