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Construction of Online Practice Tests to Check the Acquisition of Idiomatic Expressions with Personal Names

Vanya Ivanova

University of Plovdiv “Paisii Hilendarski” (Bulgaria)


Abstract: Online education brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to using information technology for teaching, testing, and creating practice tests for students to use as self-study material. Idiomatic expressions in English pose particular challenges to learners because of their specific characteristics. In this article, we have selected idioms with personal names because they reflect national identity and convey information about customs, traditions, and ways of thinking. Online practice tests constitute an effective and practical method for learners to enhance their knowledge and remember material long-term. For convenience, a list of idioms with personal names has been added in an appendix.

Keywords: idioms, personal names, test construction, practice tests, online tests



Idioms are metaphorical expressions which cannot be translated literally. They are widely used in English because they make everyday speech richer and more diverse. However, idiomatic expressions in English pose particular challenges to learners because of their characteristics such as non-literal meaning – adding up the meanings of the words used in an idiom does not correspond to the meaning of the expression as a whole; the semantic and syntactic stability of idioms – it is not possible to substitute parts of them with synonyms, and others. Mastering idioms is an efficient way to enhance the vocabulary and cultural knowledge of learners of English because when students learn a foreign language, they also learn about the culture of that country and obtain knowledge of the world. Idiomatic expressions with personal names are of particular interest to us because of their large number and extensive use. Idioms with names reflect national identity and convey information about customs, traditions, and ways of thinking. Therefore, memorizing idioms is important for students because their use can help them to sound more native-like and creative, it demonstrates proficiency in the foreign language, and can add dynamism and character to written texts.

There are approximately twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in the English language and for this reason it is essential that students improve their awareness of such expressions and understand their use. Depending on the origin of idioms with personal names, some of them are universal, others are typical for the nationality from which they are derived. For example, a “Pyrrhic victory” is related to Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus who defeated the Romans in 279 BC but lost many of his own men, hence the meaning of the expression – a victory that comes at a great cost, perhaps making the ordeal to achieve a victory not worth it. Similarly, a “Sisyphean task” is associated with Sisyphus – a legendary king of Corinth condemned by Hades to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill for eternity only to have it roll down again as it nears the top; therefore, the meaning of the idiom is a pointless, fruitless, and unrewarding task that must be repeated over and over again; and endless task. On the other hand, the phrase “do a Lord Lucan”, which does not have a biblical or historical origin, is used humorously to mean that someone has disappeared without a trace or cannot be found; it derives from the name of an English aristocrat who disappeared in 1974 after a murder and was never found.

Since no synonymy is permissible in idiomatic expressions – a word cannot be replaced by another one without altering the interpretation of the phrase, it is crucial that learners of English as a foreign language remember idioms in their exact form and their meanings as these are not literal. For example, one cannot replace the word ‘apple’ with ‘fruit’ or ‘pear’ in ‘Adam’s apple’, or use ‘smack’ or ‘cuddle’ instead of kiss in the phrase ‘kiss of Judas’ to mean a traitorous action disguised as a show of affection.

It is interesting to note that such expressions can become part of the terminological apparatus used in a specific scientific field; then they are considered as eponyms. For example, the formation of eponyms from Greek and Roman mythological names is an extremely productive process and this is probably the reason why they have come to be used so thoroughly in various scientific areas (Petkova 2014: 322).

The same applies not only to mythological names but also to the use of biblical names and names of literary characters. This is due to the fact that mythological and biblical names as well as names of literary characters are a part of every anthroponymic system, which makes them known to the broadest possible range of people, and the expressions, in which they are included, are easy to understand (Petkova 2014: 320).

The logical connection that exists between the name, be it mythological, biblical, or the name of a literary character, and the idiomatic expression of which it is a part, is extremely important. Based on this connection an assumption can be made about the semantics of the idiom and also about the sphere, in which it may be used. Often this relationship fades over time and it is necessary to present further explanations about it (Petkova 2010: 298).

To facilitate the process of learning idioms and allow more practice in an efficient and effective way, we have designed online self-study tests for students to do whenever and wherever they please. The construction of these practice tests is based on criteria introduced by Bloom (Bloom 1956) in his Taxonomy of the Educational Objectives for Cognitive Activities. According to Bloom, there are six main levels in the cognitive domain that are hierarchically arranged according to the principle ‘from simple to complex’ and can be considered as varying degrees of difficulty. Thus, learning at higher levels depends on the acquisition of essential knowledge and skills at the lower levels. Bloom offered six levels of learning objectives – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Since its creation, this six-level description of thinking has repeatedly been revised and applied under various conditions. For our purposes, we have used the following five main criteria to construct practice tests with reference to idiomatic expressions with personal names (Ivanova, Terzieva 2016: 61):

I. Reproduction of information.

II. Understanding the meaning of a word, expression, or a phraseological unit and finding a match.

III. Detection of errors in various contexts.

IV. Analysis of the lexical and grammatical items of a sentence.

V. Text creation


Test construction and administration

Practice tests can be used both for self-study and as an examination tool to check the acquisition of learning content such as idiomatic expressions or any other didactic material. They are among the most effective techniques for memorizing and retaining information for a long time (Dunlosky 2013), (Roediger III, Karpicke 2006: 249-250), (Roediger III et al. 2011: 382-384), together with distributed learning (when the material to be learned is distributed over a long period of time so that the learner must integrate the various separated parts of material into a unique entity), interleaving (a learning technique that involves mixing together different topics or forms of practice, in order to facilitate learning), and others. To take full advantage of practice tests, we devise test questions following the above-mentioned criteria and upload them to a platform to which students have access – most often we use the Distributed e-Learning Center (DeLC) (Stoyanov et al. 2010: 49-51), or Google forms. Depending on the selected platform and purposes for administering the test, it is validated for a (limited) period of time and students can take the test before expiry the deadline. Generally, self-study tests consist of close-ended questions, except for test items under the fifth criterion (text creation). After submitting their answers, learners can automatically check their results, except for their scores in the open-ended question(s), which are added after the teacher has evaluated the answers. When administered to provide further practice of the learning material, tests can be taken repeatedly until students are satisfied with the results obtained.

To illustrate the process of test construction to students, we have supplied example test questions based on idioms with personal names. For ease of reference, a list of such idiomatic expressions with their meanings is provided at the end of the article.

Criterion I is reproduction of information. It aims to check students’ acquisition of the form of the idiomatic expressions, therefore multiple-choice questions (MCQ) are typically used. In the examples presented below the correct answers are given in italics:

Choose the correct word to complete the idiomatic expressions in the sentences.

1.All work and no play makes ………. a dull boy.

a) Bob

b) Jack

c) Peter

d) Paul

2. Every Tom, Dick and ……….

a) Sam

b) John

c) Harry

d) McCoy

Criterion II refers to a higher level of knowledge in the cognitive domain and it checks whether learners understand the meaning of a phraseological unit. Test takers are required to match idioms with their definitions, synonyms, and antonyms. Here are some examples:

I. Definitions: Match the idioms to their meanings.

  1. My chances of going on holiday abroad this summer are between Buckley’s and Nunn.

a) almost non-existent

b) very high

c) relatively large

d) average

II. Definitions: Select the most appropriate idiom to substitute the expression in the brackets:

  1. My boss bought a new car again. I’m sure he is (matching the lifestyle of his neighbours).

a) keeping up with the Joneses 

b) a Johnny-come-lately

c) a peeping Tom

d) John Doe

Synonyms: Select the idiom which has a similar meaning to the given one.

  1. Put your John Henry at the bottom of the page, please.

a) John Doe

b) John Hancock

c) John Bull

d) Jack Robinson

Antonyms: Select the idiom with the opposite meaning.

1.He acted like a smart Alec every time he was near her.

a) simple Simon

b) Joe Citizen

c) Johnny-on-the-spot

d) Uncle Sam

2. You wash the potatoes, peel them, fry them, and – Bob’s your uncle! Enjoy!

a) a Herculean task

b) Katy bar the door

c) Hamlet without the prince

d) Elvis has left the building


Criterion III relates to the detection of lexical and grammatical errors in different contexts. Usually, dichotomous items and multiple-choice questions with 4-answer options are employed for this purpose. Some examples are provided below:

Choose the part of the sentence which contains a spelling or a grammatical mistake.

1. Losing his freedom was hanging like a sord of Damocles over him.

a) losing

b) was hanging like

c) sord of Damocles (sword of Damocles)

d) over

2. After partying all night he failed his driving test before he could said Jack Robinson.

a) after partying

b) failed

c) driving test

d) could said (could say)

Criterion IV incorporates closed and open test questions related to analyzing the lexical and grammatical elements of a sentence. We have selected three types of test items to serve as illustration.

I. Select the option which describes the meaning of the idiomatic expression as closely as possible.

1. The businessman is known as the man with the Midas touch.

a) he makes money out of anything he undertakes

b) he likes entertaining himself a lot

c) he is a pickpocket with light fingers

d) he is extremely uncommunicative

2. Doing all the housework seemed like a Sisyphean task to her.

a) the housekeeping felt as easy as anything

b) the domestic work looked effortless

c) the household duties resembled an acceptable pastime

d) the chores appeared to be an endless task.

II. Choose the most appropriate way to conclude the sentences.

1. I was just about to save my work when my PC crashed and I lost it all! Typical, isn’t it – that is ……….

a) Adam’s ale

b) Johnny-come-lately

c) Murphy’s law

d) Hobson’s choice

2. She is a real ………., calling the doctor for every little symptom she gets.

a) Barbie Doll

b) Nervous Nellie

c) Jane Doe

d) Miss Right

III. Write down the most appropriate idiomatic expression to complete the sentence.

  1. There is no point waiting in front of the closed office – Elvis ………. . (has left the building)
  2. Things are out of control now. What you did was to open ……….. box. (Pandora’s)


 Criterion V. (text creation)

Explain the meaning of the idiomatic expression and describe a situation from your own experience in about 50-100 words to illustrate its use.

  1. If an event is like Hamlet without the prince, it means that


  1. If a machine is on the Fritz, it




Although idiomatic expressions with personal names do not relate directly to the curriculum of students at the Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics (FMI), they are an important tool for enriching all learners’ vocabulary, knowledge of the world, and cultural awareness. Their acquisition is enhanced by means of online tests assigned as homework.

Practice tests provide teachers with essential information which can be used to make decisions about instruction and students’ grades. We have used practice tests designed by adhering to the described criteria at the FMI of the University of Plovdiv for years. A number of anonymous feedback comments have been submitted by students of different majors to share their opinion and provide recommendations regarding online self-study tests. Beyond any doubt, the percentage of students in favour of practice tests is much larger than that of disapproving learners. Among the most commonly stated advantages of self-study tests are that they are taken online from the comfort of students’ homes at a convenient time within the relevant period of test validity. These tests require learners to invest comparatively little time; they have the same structure and method of scoring and, when done regularly, ensure a variety of contexts for drilling. Some of the shortcomings of these tests are that the available types of tasks cannot be used to measure certain language abilities such as speaking and listening comprehension. Typically, students’ complaints are related to occasional technical problems (power cuts, site crashes, etc.); in consequence, they cannot submit their tests and have to start again from the beginning, which may result in frustration and lack of motivation. Overall, students rate practice tests as ‘the best homework tasks’ and claim that they help them to remember the educational material for a long time.



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A list of idioms with personal names has been compiled and uploaded (Appendix) to assist both students in their foreign language studies and teachers in their work when developing test questions to check the acquisition of idiomatic expressions with personal names.