Literal and Non-literal Meanings of Words and Idioms

Part 1: Lesson Description


Literal and Non-literal Meanings of Words and Idioms


In this lesson, students will distinguish the literal and non-literal meanings of verbal and written content in different contexts.  The lesson targets adult learners of English who have demonstrated Grades 3- 4 or B-C reading level. Learners will demonstrate an understanding of idioms by using context clues in the sentences to help figure out the meanings of idioms, by drawing out idioms without using words or letters, by giving written tips using idioms, and by creating greeting cards.

Learner Audience / Primary Users

Teachers and Students

Educational Use

  • Curriculum/Instruction
  • Assessment, Mini-Lesson, Professional Development, Home School, Informal Education


Adult Education

Grade Level

CCRS Grade Level B (3): Beginning Basic Education Literacy

CCRS Grade Level C (4): Basic Education Literacy


English Language Arts/Literacy

Strand 4




CCRS Anchor 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

a. Distinguish the literal and non-literal meanings of words and phrases in context (e.g., take steps).

b. Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms.



Material Type

  • Instructional Material
  • Teaching and Learning Strategies
  • Assessments
  • Images

Learning Goals

The purpose of this lesson is for the Beginning Basic Education learner to:

  • decipher the literal and non-literal meanings of idioms


  • Designers for Learning
  • Adult Education
  • Figurative Meaning
  • Figurative Language
  • Idiom

Time Required for Lesson

  • 30 minutes

Prior Knowledge

  • At least a Grade 3 Reading Level
  • Beginning Basic Education level of literacy skills in English

Required Resources

  • Practicing Idioms worksheet  (Print a class set) and answer key
  • Idiom Matching cards (Print one set for every two students)
  • Greeting Card sample and template ( Print a template for each ‘advanced’ student)
  • Pens/pencils
  • 8.5” X 11” cardstock or construction paper (Print class set)
  • Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
  • A bucket, a sheet of paper and one pair of scissors, cup of milk, bedsheets (optional)
  • Computer, projector, and Internet (optional)


Download: PracticingIdiomsWorksheet_1.pdf

Download: Greeting Card Template_1.pdf

Download: PracticingIdioms_AnswerKey (1).pdf

Lesson Author & License

  • Author: Ms. Alex Elrington
  • License: Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license  

Part 2: Lesson

Learning Objective

By the end of this lesson, the adult learners should be able to:

  • interpret idioms by using context clues in the sentences with 70% accuracy
  • draw idioms without using words or letters with 100% accuracy
  • construct written tips using idioms with 70% accuracy
  • make a greeting card using an idiom with 100% accuracy

Lesson Topic

  • ELA/Reading/Literacy

Context Summary

Often learners know what a stand-alone word means; however, once a word is paired with other words to create phrases or sentences, then s/he struggles to make sense of the meaning.  S/he may understand "fly" and "kite" but may find the phrase, "Oh, go fly a kite," puzzling.  In this lesson, learners will distinguish the literal and non-literal meanings of concepts in different contexts.  Learners will demonstrate an understanding of idioms by using context clues in the sentences to help decipher the meanings of idioms, by drawing out idioms without using words or letters, by giving written tips using idioms, and by creating a greeting card.

Relevance to Practice

Every culture has a wide array of sayings or advice to describe the particulars of everyday life.  Without an awareness and understanding of these expressions or idioms, English Language Learners (ELL) are often at a disadvantage.  For example, an illiterate ELL adult may know what “nail” or “head” means, but s/he may not know that “to hit the nail on its head” means to do something exactly right. Therefore, illiteracy among adults is not solely a reading problem, but is an issue of comprehending culture-based figurative expressions.  By learning English idiomatic expressions, learners can begin to speak and understand English like native speakers.  

Key Terms and Concepts

  • Context is the situation in which something happens.
  • Literal meaning refers to the normal, everyday, most basic meaning of the word.
  • Non-literal meaning is when a word means something other than its normal, everyday meaning.
  • Figurative language is when you use a word or phrase that does not have its normal, everyday, literal meaning.
  • Idiom is a phrase or saying that has a meaning that is very different from the individual words that makeup the phrase or saying.
  • Interpretation is an explanation.


Time: 3 minutes

  • Post any two idioms on the board: ‘kick the bucket,’ ‘cut corners,’ ‘hit the sheets,’ and ‘cry over spilled milk.’ Model reading aloud then acting out the two idioms. Use props if available.
  • Say: “Word and phrases can have literal or non-literal meanings.   A literal meaning is when a word or phrase is used exactly as it is defined. A non-literal meaning is when the meaning of a word or phrase takes on a special meaning.”
  • Explain the literal and non-literal meanings of the two idioms.

Example 1 : When someone says, “Grandpa kicked the bucket last night.  I’m still in shock.” ‘Kicked the bucket' (non-literal meaning) means someone died (literal meaning)

Example 2 : When an author writes, “Lucy worked 14 hours in the factory.  She hit the sheets as soon as she came home,” ‘hit the sheets (hay)’ (non-literal meaning) means to go to bed right away (literal meaning).

Example 3 :  When you read, “The chef cuts corners (non-literal meaning) when making seafood salad.  He uses canned tuna instead of fresh tuna.  ‘Cut corners’ means to do something in the easiest or cheapest way by skipping something important (literal meaning).

Example 4 :  John was upset because he missed his flight, but I told him it’s no use crying over spilled milk. ‘Cry over spilled milk’ means being upset over something that has already happened and cannot be changed.

  • Emphasize that good readers and speakers of English must be able to figure out meaning idioms using clues from what was said or written before or after an idiom is spoken or written.


Time: 1 minute

  • Say: “Today you will figure out the meanings of words and idioms:
  • by using context clues in sentences 
  • by drawing out idioms without using words or letters
  • by giving written tips using idioms
  • by creating a greeting card.”

Presentation / Modeling / Demonstration

Time: 5 minutes

  • Say:  “An idiom is a saying that has both a literal (exact) and figurative (understood) meaning.  An idiom is a type of figurative language, a word or phrase that does not have its everyday, exact meaning.”
  • Say: Let’s watch the short video called Confessions of an Idiom.  It’s about a two characters who use idioms in a funny way. Raise your hand each time you hear an idiom you’ve heard before.
  • Play the video, Confessions of an Idiom.
  • Say: “You are going study idioms we use everyday.”

Guided Practice

Time: 11 minutes

  • Say: “An idiom is a saying that has both a literal (exact) and figurative (understood) meaning.  An idiom is a type of figurative language, a word or phrase that does not have its everyday, exact meaning.  Idioms change depending on culture, time, and situation.”  
  • Prompt learners to share about idioms they recognized in the video. When did they hear it before, who said it, and why was it said?
  • Say:  When someone says, “Keep an eye on the baby.”  You don’t really take your eye out and place it on the baby.  This just means that you should watch the baby, making sure it doesn’t hurt itself.
  • Ask: “Who has heard the expression, ‘add fuel to the fire’ ?”
  • Reiterate: “‘To add fuel to the fire’ means to make a situation worst than it already is.”
  • Say: “The doctor was exhausted. He worked around the clock in the Emergency Room.’ What phrase is the idiom?  What does it mean?
  • Reiterate, “‘To work around the clock’ means to work all the time or for 24 hours straight.”
  • Say:  “There are over 4000 idioms in the English language.  Sometimes the words in the idioms are clues about the meaning.  Often they’re not, and so, overtime, you have to memorize the idioms used most often.”
  • Give each learner a copy of the Practicing Idioms worksheet.
  • Have learners work independently or in pairs.
  • Review the answers, clarifying any confusion. Ask questions that provoke deeper comprehension like:

    • What is the best idiom to use in this situation?

    • What does the idiom mean?  How did you determine the non-literal meaning of the idiom ?

    • Have you or a family member used this idiom in the past? When? Why?

    • Do you have similar saying in your country?


Time: 10 minutes

  • (Low-Mid) Matching Game: Cut out the Idiom Matching cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a flat surface. Each player takes turns flipping two cards over at a time.  If a match is made, keep the cards. If a match is not made, flip the cards back over.  The player to make the most matches wins.
  • (Advanced) Greeting Cards: In this product-driven activity, the instructor explains that idioms are often advice passed down through time.  S/he posts a list of idioms mentioned in the lesson.  Learners select their favorite idiom and make greeting cards.  The learners write advice using an idiom and draw a literal representation of the idiom in the card.  The instructor hands out samples of greeting cards.  S/he models the card making process, placing the literal, visual representation on the cover and the piece of advice on the inner page.  


Time: 15-30 minutes ( This activity may extend into another instructional period or may used as a homework assignment.)

  • News Article or Short Story Review:  In this reading activity, learners will annotate a text.  The instructor explains that idioms frequently are used by authors to capture the reader’s attention.  S/he introduces a news article, advertisement, and/or short story.  S/he explains that learners will search the texts for idioms.  The class will then discuss the literal and non-literal meaning of the idioms, the author’s purpose for the idiom, and the idioms success/failure in the text.  Learners will then create their own news article, advertisement, or short short story using idioms.

Supplemental Resources

Attribution Statements

Differentiate Instruction

This lesson provides many opportunities to differentiate instruction.  Included are: a whole-group reading activity, a product-driven exercise, a written piece,  a text annotation exercise, and practice that includes predicting, visualizing, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing words and phrases.  However, instructors may also do the following in order to support learners:

  • provide independent reading opportunities ( i.e Amelia Bedelia book series),

  • use "What I know, what I want to know, and what I learned" (KWL) charts,

  • annotate texts of increasing difficulty,

  • incorporate Total Physical Response (TPR) opportunities,

  • use online videos and instructional games
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