Animal Idioms and “as ____ as a ____” Phrases

So, I have been working with my students on idioms, because I have realized just how many I use in my everyday speech that they ask me about.  It’s a good subject to teach, because it helps with fluency and although it is definitely a more “academic” set of lessons than, say, vocabulary, the kids find them funny and so it doesn’t feel as “serious” to them as, say, a discussion of gerunds.

I chose to focus on animal-based idioms, since I work with mostly 5th and 6th graders, with some 7th or 8th graders on rare occasion.  It appeals more to their sensibilities, and since they cover animals several times in their textbooks, I know that they have a good enough vocabulary in that lesson for it to work without me having to teach the vocab that goes along with it.


As for the lesson itself, here’s how I do it:

  • First I introduce the concept of idioms.  To make it funny, I try to come up with a sentence beforehand that I can say that is as chock-full of idioms as I can.  I explain that while to them it may sound like gibberish, to a native speaker, it is completely understandable.  I explain their importance in the language, and why they should learn some.
  • I go over some animal-based idioms, such as “raining cats and dogs”, “like a bull in a china shop”, “smell a rat”, etc.  Don’t do this for too long, or you will lose their attention.  I try to do a lot of eliciting at this point, to keep their attention and to give them some agency in what they’re learning, and to show them that they know more than they think they do.
  • After that, I write “As _______ as a _____.” up on the board.  I go over some common idioms that use this structure.  “As stubborn as a mule.”, “As strong as an ox.”, “As fierce as a tiger.”, etc.  Give them enough to get the idea, but few enough that again, you don’t lose them or take away too much material from the next step.
  • After giving those examples, I write a list of animals on the board.  I tell the students to think about the traits of the animals, and come up with their own idioms that use that structure.
  • I give them about 10 minutes for this, and encourage them to use their dictionaries (so that there is variety).  When they are finished, I say the name of one of the animals in the list, and ask the students what they wrote down, and ask them to use it as a whole phrase.
  • If there is time left over, I do the reverse, but verbally, so the students can be more relaxed than they are when I ask them to write.  I say the names of traits (fast, wise, spotted, etc) and then ask them to think of animals that could work for the first half of the idiom.


Below the cut are some of the idioms you might use as examples for the “as ___ as a ___” samples, as well as a list of animals that work well for the creative parts of the lesson, and some links to lists of idioms:

as awkward as a cow on roller skates

very awkward

The little girl was as awkward as a cow on roller skates when she first began riding her bicycle.


as blind as a bat


The man is as blind as a bat and cannot see more than a small distance ahead. 


as busy as a beaver

very busy

I have been as busy as a beaver all morning trying to finish my work. 


as fat as a pig

very fat

The woman in the supermarket was as fat as a pig. 


as gentle as a lamb

very gentle

The girl is as gentle as a lamb when she is with her little sister. 


as gruff as a bear

gruff, unsociable

Our neighbor is as gruff as a bear when we meet him in the morning. 


as hungry as a bear/horse

very hungry

I was as hungry as a bear when I arrived home from work. 


as innocent as a lamb

having no guilt, naive, very innocent

The little girl is as innocent as a lamb and everybody loves her. 


as meek as a lamb

quiet, docile, meek

The secretary was as meek as a lamb when she went to ask her boss for a salary increase. 


as nervous as a cat

very nervous

The man was as nervous as a cat when he talked to the woman. 


as poor as a church mouse

very poor

My cousin is as poor as a church mouse and never has any money to spend. 


as quiet as a mouse

very quiet, shy

I was as quiet as a mouse when I left my house early this morning. 


as scared as a rabbit

very scared

I was as scared as a rabbit when I entered the empty room. 


as sick as a dog

very sick

My friend was as sick as a dog when he left the restaurant last night. 


as sly as a fox

smart and clever

The manager of our apartment is as sly as a fox. 


as strong as a horse/lion/ox

very strong

The man was as strong as an ox and easily helped us move the sofa. 


as stubborn as a mule

very stubborn

My friend is as stubborn as a mule and you can never make her change her mind. 


as weak as a kitten

weak, sickly

The girl is as weak as a kitten and cannot carry the pile of books. 


as wild as a tiger

very wild

The little boy was as wild as a tiger when we were trying to look after him.


Animals that work well:

  • cat
  • dog
  • fox
  • cow
  • tiger
  • lion
  • cheetah
  • owl
  • donkey
  • lamb
  • kitten
  • dolphin
  • bear
  • giraffe
  • elephant
  • mouse
  • rat
  • skunk
  • horse
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I like this lesson! I think I will use it if I have a class of an appropriate level.

  2. Glad you like it! You can very easily adapt it to be teaching similes right along with it, if you also discuss “______ like a ______”.

    You can also take it to a much higher level by discussing idioms in general, not just this specific category, and then having them try to come up with their own.

  3. Heh, I just discussed idioms with an intermediate level class yesterday. I’ve also done them with an advanced class as part of teaching “James and the Giant Peach”. I make the kids do a literal drawing, then explain what the idiom really means. I started off with “We’re all in the same boat.”

    I can get away with drawing because the kids in the advanced class are only 2nd and 3rd graders.

  4. Man, I wish my students were at a level where they could read something like that. These kids have major trouble with something like The Little Prince. It’s pretty sad. These are 8th graders.

  5. thanks very much… i have been looking for something like these idioms since ages..

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