(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
A former ESL Writing student of mine was quite surprised by her English Comp class. She told me that her instructor isn’t concerned about the grammar in his students’ essays. At the same time, a common complaint by academic instructors heard around the campus at that college was that their (American) students had many grammar mistakes in their academic papers. In fact, the grammar skills of the students coming out of the English Comp classes were so weak that the Business Department decided to offer business writing courses that would deal with these grammar issues.
I decided to pursue this further by interviewing several English Comp instructors. In response to my question, “Why don’t you work with grammar in your courses,” I heard this, “Focusing on grammar will stifle students’ ability to write.” In a college newspaper, an instructor explained, “An exaggerated focus on grammar stops the development of engaging and complex ideas.”
That sounds like a straw man argument. Yes, if an instructor assigns a paper and tells students that they would write one draft and that their grade would be based on the quality of grammar in their paper, then students might overly focus on that rather than their ideas. But what professional instructor would do that?
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
In this YouTube video, I describe the Writing Workshop Approach to teaching ESL writing skills. This approach has been successfully used by a large number of teachers. Some of the many benefits include motivating students by giving them autonomy and allowing teachers to conference one-on-one with students during the class time rather than outside class.
Here is the link to the YouTube video:ESL Writing Workshop on YouTube
Here is a link to where you can read more about the steps in the workshop approach and find a specific model lesson plan with free downloadable exercises/activities.
I learned an important lesson from one of my Writing class students. I originally thought that AJ was a pretty good writer, but the grammar on her second essay was a disaster. In class the next day, I showed her paper to her with all the grammar mistakes coded and asked her if she was surprised by them. With a look of embarrassment on her face, she said she wasn’t surprised because she hadn’t taken enough time to edit her paper.
This story about AJ is connected to a common myth about marking grammar on students’ papers: Students will feel discouraged if they see that they have a lot of grammar mistakes. Contrary to this myth, when I’ve asked students, “Do you want me to mark every grammar mistake on your essay or only the most serious errors?” I have found everyone has responded, “I want you to mark them all.”
(See Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers for more about my survey of students’ attitude.)
However, the idea of marking all the grammar mistakes can present a dilemma for us Writing teachers. Are we just enabling students like AJ by, in essence, becoming their personal editor when, in fact, they could have found the majority of those mistakes on their own had they taken the time to proofread the essay?
(See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills for more about marking students’ grammar mistakes more effectively.)
This is how my experience with AJ changed how I approach marking grammar on essays.