Reading Between the Lines: Making Inferences About Idioms

Subject: Language Arts
Grades: 4-6

Idiomatic expressions are a great way to give students practice with inference skills. In this lesson plan, students practice using prior knowledge and textual information in order to infer (or guess) the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

Students will:
· Learn the definition of “idiom”
· Identify idioms in passages
· Infer the meaning of unknown idioms through prior knowledge and textual information
· Write sentences that provide textual clues to the meaning of unknown idioms

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts
Standard 4:
Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Materials Needed
· WordTeasers: Idioms

Getting Started
Write the following sentence on the chalkboard:

The cowboy rode into the sunset.

Call upon a volunteer to read the sentence aloud. Then ask: “What do you think the cowboy was riding?” (A horse.) Why is that a good guess? (Because cowboys usually ride horses.) Could the cowboy be riding a motorcycle into the sunset? (Maybe. But cowboys generally ride horses.)

Next, ask: “What direction was the cowboy riding?” (West) How do you know? (He was riding into the sunset and the sun sets in the West.)

Finally, ask: About what time of day was it? (Late afternoon; early evening.) How do you know? (The cowboy was riding into the sunset.)

Tell students that in answering these questions they used information they already knew about cowboys and about where the sun rises and sets. They were able to make a good guess or infer the answers to the questions based on this prior knowledge.

Write the following idiomatic expression on the chalkboard.

Alex does not mince words.

Ask the class if they know what it means to “not mince words.” Allow time for students to tell what they know about the idiomatic expression.

Next, write these two sentences on the chalkboard.

Alex always says exactly what is on his mind. He does not mince words.

Again, ask students what they think it means to “not mince words.” (To say exactly what you think, even if it upsets other people.) Did the first sentence in this passage help students understand the meaning of “not mince words”? Why or why not?

Tell students that the phrase “not mince words” is an idiomatic expression. An idiom is a phrase that means something other than what the individual words might suggest. When students come across an unknown idiomatic expression, they can often guess (or infer) the meaning from the rest of the passage. Distribute the activity sheet to the class. Give students time to complete the worksheet. Then discuss each passage with students? How were students able to infer their answers?

Activity Worksheet
Directions: When you read a story, you often find clues that make it possible for you to make a good guess about words or phrases or facts that are not stated in the story. This is called making an inference. Read each passage below. From what the passage says, determine the meaning of the idiomatic expression in bold. Check the correct answer.

1. Whenever anything goes wrong, Ted gets very upset, while his friend Esai rolls with the punches.

What can you infer about Esai from this sentence?
_____ (a) Esai gets into a lot of fights.
­­­­­­­­­­ _____ (b) Esai is ten years old.
_____ (c) Esai usually takes things as they come.

2. Cassie can’t keep a secret. Whenever there is a surprise birthday party for someone, she always seems to spill the beans.

What can you infer about Cassie from this passage?
_____ (a) Cassie is clumsy and if always knock over the cake.
_____ (b) Cassie’s friends are planning a birthday party for her.
_____ (c) Cassie often tells or reveals secrets.

3. Eric is really two-faced. He says nice things about you when you’re together but always disses you when you’re not around.

What can you infer about Eric?
_____ (a) No one likes Eric.
_____ (b) Eric is phony.
_____ (c) Eric is clumsy.

4. Whenever it’s time for recess, Juan always jumps the gun. He runs to the door before the bell rings.

What can you infer about Juan?
_____ (a) He often does things before he should.
_____ (b) He jumps up and down when it’s time for recess.
_____ (c) He doesn’t like school.

5. Brittany is feeling down in the dumps. She got to school late. She got a bad grade on a math test, and her best friend is mad at her.

What can you infer about Brittany today?
_____ (a) She watches a lot of television.
_____ (b) She doesn’t like math.
_____ (c) She is sad and unhappy.

Extension: Distribute WordTeasers: Idioms cards to students. Challenge them to write a statement using an idiom. Then have them write one or two other sentences that provide context clues to the definition of their idiomatic expression. For example:

Statement 1. Gary wants to bury the hatchet.
Supporting Statements: Gary was mad at Nicole, but since she apologized he is ready to bury the hatchet.

Have students read their first statement out loud. Does the class know the meaning of the idiom in the statement? Now have them read their second passage. Can students infer the meaning of the idiom now?

Next Week: Vocabulary Skills for High School Students with WordTeasers: College Prep

Source: WordTeasers: Idioms — an educational game designed to get kids talking, laughing, thinking, writing…and improving language arts skills. Ages 9+ .

Available at

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