Mar 9, 2013


Photo by @aclil2climb via eltpics
Binomials are two word expressions (strong collocations) such as "dead or alive", "give and take", "law and order"
In this activity inspired by a short film activity on FilmEnglish, students become more aware of binomial pairs in English.

Binomials (also known as Siamese twins) consist of two words joined by conjunctions and, or and sometimes but, and are very common in English. The activity below is suitable for upper-intermediate and advanced students.

Step 1 - Video
A split-screen short called Symmetry was a jumping-off point for the ensuing language focus. We watched the film and followed stages 1-4 in the lesson plan outlined on Film English.

Step 2 - Post-watching
After watching, draw students attention to the following expressions

cops and robbers
fish and chips
salt and pepper

Ask students if they can think of other, similar expressions in English (you don't have to introduce the word binomial)

Step 3 - Matching
Divide the class into an even number of groups: A and B. If you have 4 groups you will need 2 copies of the handout below, if you have 6 groups – 3 copies etc (1 handout per 2 groups)

Cut the handout below in the middle (vertically) and distribute the cut-up binomials between the groups. Give the left column to groups A and the right column to groups B. Each group should have 13 pairs. Ask students to match the pairs.

Step 4 - Feedback
Ask all groups A and B to go to each other's tables and check their matchings. Clarify difficult items. Definitions and examples can be found in this dictionary:
Life and death is part of the longer expression "a matter of life and death".

Language note
26 binomial pairs may seem too much for one lesson. However, only a handful of these are genuinely new items: your students will probably know some of these binomials and will no doubt know the individual words comprising most of them. Also note, Law and Order and Nip and Tuck are names of popular TV shows students might be familiar with.

My upper-intermediate students didn't know blood and guts(play) fast and loose, odds and ends (Group A) and cut and dried, null and void, spick and span (Group B)If you think it's still too many items for one lesson, remove six and give each group 10 pairs.

Follow up
More contextualised practice in pairs/groups using the handout below. Note that some expressions in this activity didn't appear in the matching activity.
Students can look up the pairs they don't know using Netspeak (see related post here) or Macmillan dictionary which has an autocomplete function.

Language focus
Point out that binomial pair are irreversible, i.e. you can't switch the order of words in a pair. Draw students' attention to the sound patterns in binomials. Some of them rhyme (hustle and bustle, wine and dine) while many others are alliterated (bigger and betterpart and parcel, prim and proper). According to research (Boers & Lindstromberg 2005), about 1/3 binomial pairs in English have alliterative patterns. 

You can round off the lesson with the song "She" which contains a lot of binomial pairs and alliteration - click HERE

For further (decontextualised) practice, use these Quizlet flashcards or this matching game
More on binomials including a quiz on BBC Learning English

I hope your students enjoy the lesson and thank you to Kieran Donaghy (Film English) for inspiring the activity.

Lindstromberg, S. & Boers, F. (2008) The mnemonic effect of noticing alliteration in lexical chunks. Applied Linguistics 29(2): 200-222.


  1. Thanks for this - it worked well. "Hot and Cold" by Katy Perry also has lots of binomial pairs in it

    1. I agree, Mike. A teacher trainee of mine once created an activity for "Hot and Cold" by Katy Perry. It's great for teaching binomials to lower levels.
      I am glad that the activity worked well for you. Thank you for the comment!

  2. Good use of authentic material! It's not easy to teach binomials. I like how you start the lesson with an artistic short video, follow up with engaging activities, and round off the lesson with a song to show students more binomial pairs.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I just wanted to point out that the activities suggested here do not have to take place in the same lesson. They can be spread over a few lessons to provide distributed practice and recycling.

  3. Hi
    thank you I really liked your activities, and I need your help I am looking for a text that contains 'binomials', do you have any suggestions ?

    1. Glad you liked them (sorry don't know your name)
      I don't think you can find many examples of binomials in one text but you can often find them in poetry or songs (see the link above)


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