The Grammar Aspect with Most Mistakes by Language Learners: Prepositions

(This posting includes handouts which you are welcome to use with your students.)

According to Brain Briefs by Bob Duke and cognitive scientist Art Markman, “… adults who learn a new language make more mistakes with prepositions than with just about any other aspect of speech.”

Most ESL teachers have probably been asked questions like this one that I had from one of my students, Camila, from Mexico: “Why do we say ‘I’m confused about’ rather than ‘I’m confused at’?”

It seems futile to try to explain the reasons or give rules for when to use certain prepositions. And even if we could formulate some, it seems unimaginable that students will stop while speaking or writing and ask themselves, “Now what was the rule for the preposition here?” Just the preposition “on” has 10 definitions.

How to learn prepositions

Markman and Duke summarize what many professionals (e.g. Krashen) in the teaching ESL field  have said about how to learn prepositions: “… the best way … is to hear them, use them, and allow your brain to recognize which ones are appropriate in different circumstances by taking into account both the meaning and the statistics of when they are used.  This kind of implicit learning requires a lot of exposure to the language …” (p. 127).

This doesn’t mean that the only role that a teacher plays in this is to just provide meaningful input through reading and listening.

Three ways teachers can facilitate students’ learning of prepositions

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Teach Reduced Forms for Comprehension Not for Speaking.

Cover reduced forms shot

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

A student, Tim, once came to my class all excited and asked me, “Hey David, wha ya gonna do di wee-en? I wanna gedouda taw.” 

I was pretty sure that he was trying to say something in English, but I had no idea what it was. After repeating the sentences several times, he became embarrassed and decided to write them down. “What are you going to do this weekend? I want to get out of town.”

He told me that the teacher in his previous class was doing lessons on reduced forms of speaking and had encouraged them to use them when speaking. So this student whose pronunciation was often hard to understand because he tended to drop final consonants of words (e.g. wee = week / taw = town) was being encouraged to do something that would make him even harder to understand.  Crazy!

How to work with reduced forms. (Handout exercise included)

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Avoiding Writing-Teacher Burnout: Save Your Time And Energy With This Effective Method For Giving Specific Feedback.

Many teachers mistakenly believe that spending their precious time and energy writing long comments at the end of students’ papers is what Writing teachers should do.  As one instructor wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “I am an English professor, and responding to student writing is what we English professors do…For 25 years, I have diligently, thoughtfully, and fastidiously written comments on my students’ essays. In my neatest hand, I’ve inscribed a running commentary down the margin of page after page, and at an essay’s conclusion I’ve summarized my thoughts in a paragraph or more.”

This instructor decided to stop writing comments on her students’ paper after she came to this realization: “Most students seemed to spend little time taking in my comments on their papers. They quickly skimmed, looking for the grade, and then shoved the papers into their bags.” Her solution: Instead of writing comments, she decided to meet in her office to discuss her students’ papers one-on-one.

For most ESL Writing instructors, meeting with students in their offices is not a realistic option. At the same time, writing long comments at the end of papers is often a waste of time and energy, just as that professor discovered.

Fortunately, there is another option for Writing teachers.

A much more practical and yet effective way to provide specific feedback

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Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 5: Very, Very, Very Smart Children vs. Creative Ones

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Some reasons why students seemed stimulated by this discussion:

1) Before reading this article, many just assumed that very smart children (prodigies) would become the most successful as adults.

2) They seemed interested to hear about prodigies that their classmates knew or that were in each other’s countries.

3) They were surprised by how important or unimportant approval by their parents was to their classmates.

4) They enjoyed comparing how creative they were and how much each of them was a conformist and/or non-conformist.

5) They liked to talk about their passions.

Here is the basis for this discussion: In his book, Originals, Adam Grant explains how many people believe that life would be easier and people would admire us if we were very, very smart. Actually, though, being creative improves people’s lives more.

This and future discussion activities include four parts:

1) A one-page article usually including a brief summary of a high-interest research study.

2) Ten true-false comprehension questions.

3) Pre-Discussion Exercise in which students read and think about several questions about their own experiences about the topic.

4) Small-group discussions of the article in which each student is given a paper with different questions in the form of Student A, B or C.   

About Discussion Activity 5: Very, Very, Very Smart Children vs. Creative Ones (and the handout).

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