Learn to read between the lines with Tim Bowen’s expressions from the world of school and education.

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‘He grew up in the school of hard knocks.’ This expression is used to describe the difficult experiences that happen in someone’s life and that influence the type of person they become, the implication being that their tough upbringing will make them more able to cope with the challenges life brings. 

Education has traditionally aimed to teach children the three ‘r’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), although, ironically, only one of these begins with an ‘r’. A good student could probably read between the lines (understand something that is not expressed directly) and put two and two together (guess what is happening or what something means based on what they have seen or heard). 

Such a student might end up being the teacher’s pet (the teacher’s favourite) and probably did his or her homework regularly. If you do your homework in an idiomatic sense, however, it means that you prepare for something by learning as much as you can about it, as in ‘You could tell from the interviewer’s questions that he hadn’t really done his homework’.  

It is rarely a good idea to tell tales out of school (to reveal secrets or inform someone in authority that someone has done something wrong) as this may affect your relations with your fellow students. However, once you have left school, you may (if you are male) come to rely on the old boy network or the old school tie, a system by which men who went to the same school or college use their influence to help each other.

Teaching tip: ask learners to use an English-English dictionary or a search engine to find the meaning of these phrases, which can also be used idiomatically and which are also related to school and education:  make the grade, the old school, have your nose in a book, teach an old dog new tricks, teach your grandmother to suck eggs, a steep learning curve, chalk and talk.