Idioms are phrases that have both a literal (exact) and a figurative (understood) meaning.  They can’t be understood by evaluating the individual meaning of their parts.  For example, if I say “when pigs fly” you may know the literal meanings of the words “when,” “pigs,” and “fly,” but that still doesn’t let you in on the figurative idea that something is never going to happen.

John Randal wrote a poem that gives perfect examples of the figurative language of idioms:

‘You can’t cry over spilled milk!’
my mother always said.

‘Life’s not a piece of cake!’
she hammered in my head.

‘That’s the way it goes,
that’s the way the cookie crumbles’

My mother saved her idioms
for all my idiotic troubles.

“Don’t cry over spilled milk” is another perfect example of an idiom.  Literally, it means that you shouldn’t cry if you spill a glass of milk, but figuratively, it means you shouldn’t get upset over something small.  Often you can see the relationships between the two meanings.  After all, pigs don’t ever fly and spilling milk is not really a big deal after all.

Sometimes it’s really hard to figure out where on earth the idiom came from in the first place.  A bit of research will let you in on it though.  Often our cultural idioms come from something that happened in our history.  Today we have potluck dinners, but the word potluck came from long ago.   The word potluck came from unexpected guests coming to dinner and sharing the pot of whatever was over the fire. They ate from the pot and hoped it was good (hence “pot-luck”).

“Upper crust” is another idiom with historical reference.  Wheat was the most expensive of the settler’s grains in colonial America.  A housewife who wanted her pie to be impressive used wheat flour, but because of the expense she probably would’ve only used it on the top crust of the pie since the rest of the pie was hidden underneath. Today if we say “upper crust” we mean fancy or rich, just like the expensive wheat flour of the upper crust.  Once we know the history, it’s easy to see right through the figurative language to the real meanings of idioms.

Idioms Exploration:

Cut pieces of paper into fourths and fold each fourth hamburger style.  On the front of each paper, write an idiom and draw its literal meaning.

 Mad as a wet hen


Inside the booklet, write the figurative meaning.  In this case, very angry!  If there’s a historical story that goes along with it, write that inside as well.

Attach all of the small idiom booklets to a file folder to make an idiom lap book.  You may also want to print out these 12 pages of idioms and their meanings for kids to store inside their idioms lap book or in their writer’s notebook.  Just click on the link or on the picture below to take you to the printable.

Common Idioms

Additional Layers:

  • Write silly poetry using idioms.
  • Find a story that you’ve written in the past and try to add as many idioms as you can just for fun.  Turn it into a challenge and see who can use the most idioms in a two page story.  (This is a fun challenge activity, but make sure kids understand that in great writing, a few well-placed idioms will go further than many intrusive ones in a story.)
  • Read some books that use idioms and stop as you come to the various ones so that you can talk about the literal and figurative meanings.  You’ll find some good books full of idioms in the library list below.

Library List:

  • Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parrish
  • Mad As A Wet Hen by Marvin Terban
  • In A Pickle and Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban
  • A Little Pigeon Toad by Fred Gwynne
  • The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne
  • A Chocolate Moose For Dinner by Fred Gwynne
  • Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen


  1. Thank you for this post. I am going to use this tomorrow as a special “activity” with my kiddos (9th and 6th). I think it will be fun to go through each of them and see just how many we know. Thanks again.

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