Primary English | Vocabulary Questions Type 3: Idioms are a Piece of Cake!

Hola! (That’s Mexican for “hey” or “hi”) Are you ready for the third and final part of the Vocabulary MCQ section series? I hope you are because I am excited to get going!

Previously, I have explained how the following three types of questions are commonly found in the Vocabulary MCQ section in Paper 2. They are:

1.    Similar but different – choosing the most appropriate word in the given context
2.    Knowledge of phrasal verbs
3.    Familiarity with common English idioms

For this post, I will focus on the final type, which tests how well you know some of the more common English idioms. Before we start, let’s try and recall what idioms are:

An idiom is a type of figurative language, which means it cannot be understood literally. For instance, in the sentence ‘She only visits her mother once in a blue moon’, the idiom ‘once in a blue moon’ suggests that she visits her mother infrequently, and not that she visits her mother only when the moon is blue. It should only be noted that an idiom has a fixed order and the words cannot be changed. For example, “once in a red moon” or “once in a sky blue moon” are both incorrect. 

Vocabulary Questions Type 3: Idioms are a piece of cake!

For this type of question, you are given four options of idioms. You need to choose the idiom that is most appropriate for the given sentence.

Take a look at the example below:

To answer such a question is a two-step process.

Step 1: Read the question carefully. This step helps you to understand the meaning of the whole sentence.

Step 2: Eliminate with content clues. Look at the four options given and cross out those that definitely do not go with the context given in the sentence.

Let me show you by using the same example:

Step 1:           Read the question carefully.

Step 2:           Eliminate with content clues.

The content clues such as ‘felt very foolish’ and ‘falling into the swimming pool’ suggest that the writer’s brother did something silly and embarrassing by falling into the swimming pool.

Hence, the correct answer is (3) made a spectacle of himself because it is the only one which means ‘to do something that makes you look stupid’.

‘Bit the bullet’ means to ‘force yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult’. Although falling into a pool is unpleasant, there is no clue to suggest that the writer’s brother forced himself to fall into the pool. He also did not ‘face the music’ because there was no mention of him accepting a criticism or punishment for something he has done. ‘Bit off more than he could chew’ is incorrect as well because he was not trying to do something that was too difficult for him.

Example 2:

Step 1:           Read the question carefully.

Step 2:           Eliminate with content clues.

The phrase ‘narrate exactly what had happened’ shows that Kate had been asked by the teacher to get to the point and only to include relevant events in her recount of the incident. The phrase ‘not to’ is also important because it signals that you need to look for an idiom which means opposite to what she is supposed to do.

As such, the answer is (2) beat about the bush because she should avoid telling the teacher about things that are not related to what had happened to her.

Note that you might be tricked by the idiom ‘cut corners’ because it might lead you into thinking that she needed to “cut” her story down to include only the relevant details. However, this is wrong because to ‘cut corners’ means to do something in the easiest, cheapest or fastest way, which does not fit the context of this sentence. Similarly, (3) and (4) are wrong because they do not go with the situation given.

What can you do to improve?

These steps are meant to help you to decide on the most suitable answer but the most crucial thing is for you to have a good understanding of idioms. To do so:

1. Look out for such expressions when they are used, whether in something that you read or watch.

2. Be familiar with their meanings and know how to use them in sentences.

3. Start by learning the idioms by type e.g. body part idioms, colour idioms, animal idioms etc. This may make it easier for your to search for the idioms and remember them as well.

Below, I have listed some websites you can visit to polish up your knowledge on idioms:






In a nutshell

To sum up, in order to do well for this section of Paper 2, you need to brush up on your vocabulary. It not only means learning new words and phrases but also making the effort to use them, either in your speech or writing. The steps I have highlighted in my three posts are there to help you in selecting the best answer out of the four given options but they will only work effectively if you do your part in improving your grasp of the language. It might look like an uphill battle at first, but if you keep at it, I believe that in the end, you’ll find answering Vocabulary questions a walk in the park.

(Hint: I’ve just used two idioms in the paragraph above. See if you can locate them and know what they mean!)

I hope you have benefitted from the tips. Leave a comment and let me know if there are other areas of concern you want me to look into. Thank you!

About the Author: Nora is an English Teacher at Lil' but Mighty. She is committed to providing students with a dynamic and nurturing environment in which they can grow and develop. One of her greatest strengths as an educator is instilling a love for the English Language in her students.