Friday, 31 March 2017

Prepositions: the power of small

Prepositions are one of the most difficult aspects of the English language to teach for various reasons, the most important of which is the untranslatability or lack of equivalents of English prepositions in other languages.

Even categorizing prepositions is a huge challenge as there is so much overlap between them. “In”, “on”, “to” and “at”, to mention but a few, are used to indicate place/movement or time and in countless metaphorical expressions. And this is the tip of the iceberg.

One needs a certain methodology to explain the use of prepositions though admittedly the most effective way is exposure to the language. However, a large number of students tend to miss prepositions, to somehow overlook them when reading as they are not – at least not always – vehicles of lexical meaning though of course essential for accuracy (grammatical meaning).

I have a flexible attitude when it comes to prepositions, which depends on the age of the students, their level in English and their strong intelligence(s) as well as the representability of the given preposition.

One thing I make sure about even at a very basic level of English is that the students are “alerted” to the presence of prepositions. For instance, I remove some sentences from a lesson to which they have had broad exposure and create a gap filling exercise. The gaps are to be filled with prepositions though with young children I do not always make explicit use of the term “preposition”.
Interestingly, the result varies from those who get most of the gaps right to those who have totally missed their presence in the text.

In junior courses there is usually some visual representation of prepositions of place though not of movement. However, I do find that the preposition “to” is seriously under-represented in visual terms in most course books at any level despite the fact that phrases like go to school or go to the park are introduced in junior 1 books.  My painting skills are virtually none so I often use a horizontal arrow to indicate movement for the preposition “to”.

And from the above I can more easily move to “into”:

There is no doubt that as language input increases, patterns begin to arise, and what was merely a hazy understanding before becomes embedded knowledge. Even so questions do come up at more advanced levels, which somehow must be answered. An example is the use of “to” in phrases such as
He fell to his death.
The essay was pared down to a mere four paragraphs.
in which case I resort to abstractions such as “to” is followed by the result of the action of the verb. This may not clarify things for all learners, but it does help with quite a few.

Poems or children’s books are ideal for presenting and practising the use of prepositions. I will provide an example of a children’s poem which can be used for practicing or testing the prepositions “over”, “across” and “to”. I created a slideshow with an animated horse that performs the actions described in the poem. It is great fun to watch and read over and over. The poem is rhythmic even mesmerizing.
Here it is:

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