(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.