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How Do I Get My Students to Learn When and How to Use Prepositions

Rosie Norman

Prepositions are a tricky matter and their use differs from language to language. The natural tendency among many students is to directly translate a preposition they may use in their native language into English. As we all know, literal translation may bring up some issues and not everything can be translated directly from one language to another.

Therefore, right from the beginning, it is important for the teacher to make students aware of the correct preposition by encouraging the learning of the collocation (words that are usually used together). For example: good at, interested in, bored with, look at, listen to.

Even a fluent speaker of a foreign language will find that prepositions are a minefield.

In order to help our students feel more comfortable using prepositions, let’s take a look at some activities to help them learn this structure properly:

Noughts and Crosses
A great way to work on prepositions is by playing the classroom version of noughts and crosses (tic tac toe), by drawing a 3×3 square on the white board and then filling in each square with a word without the preposition. Divide the students into two groups and then have each team take turns choosing a word and adding the correct preposition to it. If the answer is correct then a square is marked with the group’s sign (either an X or O) and the preposition written up. The object is also to get a complete line diagonally, vertically or horizontally and to stop the other team from forming a complete line. If the answer is wrong, then the other team continues.

noughts1

Dominoes
A similar activity is to prepare cards like dominoes with a word and a noun/adjective/verb which needs to be matched. This requires some preparation beforehand by writing the cards in sequence and then cutting them up. The cards can be distributed amongst 2 to 4 students and then one student must set a word or preposition down on the table while the other students try to match it with the correct word. When the dominoes are complete the students can take turns making sentences using the correct combination. Students who form correct oral or written sentences (depending on the level) receive a point. The student with the most points may then receive a reward or a specific classroom privilege.

Activities for prepositions of place and movement

Map activities
If you are able to take your students outside, another activity is to write some instructions on how to get from one place to another, for example from the classroom to the office. You may even rearrange the class and label certain tables or chairs as places in a city. This activity can be combined with vocabulary of words like pavement, traffic lights, post office, bridge etc. You may use maps and work on a role play activity with your students or you may even get creative and have one student try to guide another with their directions and then see if the other student follows them correctly. Make sure to go over phrases like ‘opposite’, ‘across’, ‘behind’ etc.

Phrasal verbs or multi word verbs
Phrasal or multi word verbs are not prepositional verbs. As you may know, words like look into, take after, and watch out have their own special meaning and do not necessarily rely on the preposition. Depending on the level of your students, gradually introduce some common phrasal verbs into the class lessons. Make sure to get your students used to analysing the context in each sentence in order to know what the phrasal verb means. You may work on guessing games with your class by separating the class into 2 groups and writing a sentence on the board such as “I don’t know what this word means, I’m going to look it up in the dictionary.” Highlight the phrasal verb and then encourage both teams to try and provide a correct definition for the phrasal verb. You can make the activity more difficult by making the sentence shorter or making it more vague.

Even a fluent speaker of a foreign language will find that prepositions are a minefield. The only way to use the prepositions correctly is by practicing constantly and listening and speaking attentively. Prepositions will be a challenging topic from beginners right though to advanced students!

Can you think of any other creative ways to practice prepositions with your students? Let us know!

About the author

Rosie is British born and lives in Patagonia Argentina. She is a language teacher and translator and loves exploring places. When not typing articles on her ‘compu’, she’s busy outside tending her beautiful small holding or ‘chacra’ in the foothills of the Andes.