Going on a wild goose chase? Letting the cat out of the bag? What about taking the bull by its horns? Explore how animal idioms and the language we use shape our relationships with others.
Year Level: 5–7
Learning area: English
General capabilities: Critical and creative thinking; literacy; personal and social capability
Lesson duration: 85 minutes (Part A–C); 40 minutes (Part D); 60 minutes (Extension Activity)
- identify the meanings of common animal idioms and understand the context in which they are used
- learn how idioms are used to express and create personal, social and cultural identities
- understand the concept of speciesism and analyse arguments against using animal idioms, identifying the author’s point of view using language and vocabulary clues
- devise their own alternatives to animal idioms and create a supporting illustration.
- ACELY1698: Show how ideas are conveyed through the use of vocabulary, including idiomatic expressions, and that these can change according to context
- ACELA1518: Innovate and play with language features to achieve particular aesthetic, humorous and persuasive purposes and effects
- ACELA1529: Understand how styles of speech and idioms express and create personal and social identities
- ACELY1709: Participate in and contribute to discussions, clarifying and interrogating ideas, developing and supporting arguments, sharing and evaluating information, experiences and opinions
Scroll to the top to download this lesson’s material:
- ‘Animal Idioms’ handout
- ‘Animal Idioms and Speciesism’ worksheet
- ‘Animal-Free Idioms!’ worksheet
In what context would people use an idiom?
Part A: Identifying Meanings of Common Animal Idioms
Distribute the ‘Animal Idioms’ handout or display it on the whiteboard. Give students 10–15 minutes to match the animal idioms to their meanings.
Afterwards, go through the answers together as a class. How many of them did students know or guess correctly? Allow time for students to discuss any unfamiliar idioms. In what context would people use an idiom (e.g. a formal vs casual context)?
Discuss whether students would use idioms in the following contexts. Students can raise their hand to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’:
- talking to family at the dinner table
- talking to someone you’ve just met
- making a speech about a serious issue
- writing an article in a newspaper
- writing an email to a friend
- talking to someone from another country where English is not their first language.
idiom (noun): a phrase or expression whose meaning can’t be understood from the ordinary meanings of the words in it.
(1) g; (2) i; (3) a; (4) h; (5) e; (6) k; (7) d; (8) f; (9) c; (10) j; (11) b
Vocabulary: culture, simile
How are idioms useful?
Part B: Idioms as a Social and Cultural Fabric (Discussion)
What does it mean to be as happy as Larry? The phrase is both an idiom and a simile. Ask students to guess its meaning and who Larry might be before playing the video here (opens to ABC Education).
People in Australia are known for some pretty interesting and endearing idioms and sayings. The way we speak and the language we choose help to build our personal, social and cultural identities.
Ask students why they think idioms are useful. Possible answers may include:
- they are humorous and set the tone for a relaxed and jovial conversation
- they make things sound more interesting, which better engages a listener or reader
- they make people feel a part of a particular group or culture (using idioms specific to a certain language, country or region).
simile (noun): a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g. as brave as a lion).
culture (noun): the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular group of people or society.
How do you think certain animal idioms came about?
Is it offensive to use them today?
Part C: Animal Idioms: Speciesism?
Ask students how they think the animal idioms they looked at earlier originated. Idioms like ‘flog a dead horse’ and ‘kill a bird with two stones’ came from a time in which whipping horses and using slingshots to kill birds were perhaps more common and familiar.
Hand out the ‘Animal Idioms and Speciesism’ worksheet and ask students to read the tweets published by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American animal rights organisation. Before reading the Point of View passage, ask students whether they agree with PETA that we should avoid using animal idioms.
Have students read and complete the Point of View portion of the worksheet. Have their opinion changed? What about idioms that may be considered sexist or racist? How is speciesism different? Animals can’t be offended by the language we use, but how could animal idioms perpetuate problematic attitudes humans have towards other animals?
speciesism (noun): the belief that being human is a good enough reason for human animals to have greater moral rights than non-human animals.
(1) c; (2) d; (3) b; (4) a; (5) a
Optional: Host a class debate with the topic: ‘Should we stop using animal idioms?’ Give students enough time to prepare their debate points. Each team should be given two minutes to present their case. After both sides have a chance to speak, both teams should receive two minutes to prepare their rebuttal and summary.
Part D: Write Your Own Animal-Free Idioms!
Idioms are a very useful feature of language, but some idioms are outdated or considered offensive by certain groups.
Hand out the ‘Animal-Free Idioms’ worksheet where students will have a go at writing their very own idioms! At the end of the activity, ask students to volunteer to read their answers out. Collect the worksheets and use them for hilarious class displays! Will any of these creative idioms catch on in the classroom?
Extension Activity: Animal Insults
Ask students to think of examples where animal names are used as an insult. For example:
- pig (dirty, greedy)
- fox (sly, cunning)
- sheep (dim-witted)
- chicken (cowardly)
- rat (disloyal, deceitful)
Ask students to imagine they are a member of a special association representing a particular animal (e.g. The Association of Friendly Foxes or The Courageous Chickens Association). They should write an opinion piece for a newspaper urging people to stop using their name as an insult. Students can research animal behaviours to make the strongest case possible.