Teaching Kids Proverbs and Idioms: Sneaking Five Minutes of Literacy into Breakfast

Our happy copy of the book. Everyone in the house enjoys it.

What is the difference between a proverb and an idiom, you ask? If you were my student, I would give you some examples, and ask you to tell me, without Googling it.

Here are some proverbs. 

A dog is a man’s best friend. Necessity is the mother of invention. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Still waters run deep. A stitch in time saves nine. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Fish or cut bait. All that glitters is not gold. Blood is thicker than water. Discretion is the better part of valor. Never say die. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Strike while the iron is hot. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. The more the merrier.

Here are some idioms. 

Apple of one’s eye. Bite the bullet. Cold feet. Cross the Rubicon. Dyed in the wool. Eat crow. Fifth wheel. Grain of salt. High horse. In the doghouse. John Hancock. Knock on wood. Lip service. Magnum opus. Nose out of joint. Once in a blue moon. Paint the town red. Quid pro quo. Red Herring. Renaissance Man. Sink or swim. Salt of the earth. Sitting pretty. Tongue in cheek. Timbuktu. Upper crust. Vicious circle. Water off a duck’s back. White elephant.

Now I’m curious. Are you?

What similarities do you notice? What differences? Can both proverbs and idioms be taken literally? Where do they come from? Do you think different cultures have their own proverbs and idioms? Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn a few of them? 

Sneaking literacy into the breakfast cereal. 

My girls sit at the bar for breakfast, and I prop a whiteboard on the counter and jot an intriguing tidbit. Right now we’re doing proverbs, idioms, mythology, and root words. I also begin with a current event I’ve read in the past day, and ask them to associate a root, phrase, quote, or story with the current event.

Sometimes I only have five or ten minutes, and so I write a single phrase on the whiteboard and talk to them about it while I make lunches or clean the kitchen. Sometimes I ask them to recite something short, or quiz them on any number of things. It’s amazing what you can teach and learn in 5-10 minutes a day in the kitchen, and it’s fabulously fun too.

Who cares about proverbs and idioms anyway, and shouldn’t kids learn that stuff naturally anyway?

Well, I care about it, and yes, kids will pick up on a lot of these phrases in common conversation. But not all of it, which is why E.D. Hirsch, a scholar of the romantic poets and a literary critic, wrote the book The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. 

In it, he attempts to identify and define the knowledge assumed in public discourse, known by a broad majority of literate Americans. He does not claim the book to be a closed canon, but rather an open book subject to discussion and participation. He argues the enormous importance of becoming a good reader, not only for the ability to decode and encode words, but to skillfully communicate ideas across a diverse culture.

In other words, like I tell my girls, the more we read a diverse body of literature, the more we furnish our minds with science, math, human relations, phrases, myths, biblical passages, geography and so forth. The more we bring those furnishings to our next reading or our next conversation, the more we can give and partake in that interaction. It’s like compound interest, I tell them. And what we learn today about shared proverbs and idioms, for example, blesses our understanding of everything else from this day forth, and bridges our lives to all others.

How I teach my kids.

This is why I stand in the kitchen every morning, not only to serve my kids breakfast, but to nourish their minds with rich ideas and a deepened understanding of the world. Even so, I do my best not to spoon feed answers to them, but give them a tasty morsel or two, ask them questions, and require them to pay the price for an entire slice of knowledge.

Most of the time, we use Hirsch’s book, and others like it, more for a review than for instruction. If they are unaware, for example, of what it means to “turn the other cheek,” or “consider the lilies of the field,” I will have them read entire passages in the Bible instead of just telling them. If they are not familiar with Apollo, the Holy Grail, Sherwood Forest, or Knights of the Round Table, I will have them read those books of mythology. Even if they are familiar with a proverb or idiom, I might have them search the origin, like a Shakespearian play, or how it relates to a piece of history.

The best part. 

And the best part? Even in my forties, I am learning ridiculous quantities of fascinating stuff, right alongside them. It’s thrilling, it’s invigorating, and hopefully as they watch me prizing it, they will do the same.

And thereby hangs a tale of my charmed life.  At least between the morning hours of 7 and 9. I’d love to hear what you get excited to learn too, and how you share that zest with others. 


  1. Jenn (eating bender) on 09/28 at

    I think this is so amazing, Melanee. I’m the kind of person who can definitely get excited over anything related to words, sentence structure, grammar…you name it. In fact, my sister-in-law just bought me a great book called “Woe Is I” that I would highly recommend checking out. When we have kids, I look forward to discovering ways of teaching them these small tidbits while also learning alongside them. Thanks for the inspiring post, as always.

  2. Melanee Evans on 10/02 at

    Thank-you, Jenn! I am so happy that someone out there loves the combining of words and sounds and ideas like I do!

    I just checked out “Woe is I” on Amazon and it looks fantastic. How fun to have a sister-in-law that knows your interests and is thoughtful enough to buy you a book. Yes, teaching children anything and everything is such a kick, and so satisfying.

    You inspire me too in so many ways, so the feeling is mutual!

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