(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
1) Inductive exercises to understand what prepositions are and how they are used.
No doubt, students will make mistakes with prepositions in their writing. Many students, especially ear-learners, will use the wrong preposition because that is the one that they HEARD incorrectly used a similar context. For example, “The party starts in 7 p.m.” Or they incorrectly won’t use a preposition when one is needed because they HADN’T HEARD one in a similar context. “We don’t agree your idea.”
(See Approaching Grammar with Generation 1.5 Students and Other Ear-Learners for more about teaching ear-learners.)
It won’t help those students to tell them that they have a preposition mistake in or that they need to add a preposition to their sentence unless they first actually know what a preposition is. Just giving them a lecture about prepositions or showing them a list isn’t helpful. Instead, an inductive approach in which students start with examples and then formulate the rules on their own has proven to be very effective, especially for ear-learners.
You can use this link to download for free a set of inductive exercises to use with your students to learn what prepositions are and how to use them.Prepositions Exercise Grammar Review Book
For more exercises using the inductive approach to teaching grammar, click here:
2) Lead students through hints to help them discover grammar mistakes in their writing.
After students have learned what prepositions are, we can help them internalize which ones to use and where to use them through the context of their own writings. There are weak and constructive ways to do this.
The weak way is for the teacher to essentially edit the piece of writing by correcting the makes for the student.
The most constructive approach: lead students through hints. By writing a code in the margin, the teacher can indicate that there is a preposition mistake in that line.
Types of teacher hints:
1) For wrong preposition in a line: In the margin, write WPrep.
They usually travel in train.
Correction: They usually travel in by train.
2) For a missing preposition: In the margin, write +Prep.
He is waiting the movie to start.
Correction: He is waiting for the movie to start.
3) To omit a preposition: In the margin, write -Prep
She loves with me.
Correction: She loves with me.
4) To help students with a preposition which they probably won’t be able to correct: Give letter hints.
Correction: Tim was standing in front of the closet picking out some clothes to
try on for his first date. He was full of excitement. Suddenly,
the phone rang in the living room.
3) Reinforce correct usage of prepositions: Underline in green.
An easy but powerful technique for helping students internalize correct usage of prepositions is to indicate on their papers where they had used them correctly. In this user-friendly technique, the teacher merely underlines the correct prepositions in green. (See Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique for more about this technique.)
In response to Camila’s question, above, about why we use “about” rather than “at,” I told her that I clearly understood her idea even though she had used an incorrect preposition, so it wasn’t a serious mistake. And I said that if I could give her rules for every preposition, she’d go crazy trying to memorize them all. My recommendation to her was, if she really wanted to improve her writing and especially her prepositions, she just needed to do more reading, and it would come naturally. (For more about improving writing through more reading, see A True Story to Motivate Students to Read More)