By Adam J. Simpson

26 August 2014 - 10:56

'Prepositions mark special relationships between persons, objects, and locations.' Photo (c)  uncoolbob, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Prepositions mark special relationships between persons, objects, and locations.' Photo ©

uncoolbob, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Why are words like 'on', 'at', 'for' and 'about' so tricky for learners of English and how can teachers help? Adam Simpson, winner of the British Council’s Teaching English blog award, explains.

Prepositions and their importance in English

Prepositions are tricky little beasts. The relative shortness of the words (most are six letters or under) and their often misplaced role in the overall scheme of things (why should prepositions be less important than nouns, adjectives or verbs?) mean that we should treat them carefully and perhaps give them more time in the classroom than is usually the case.

What exactly are prepositions and how are they used in English?

In a list of English prepositions you will find very common words such as 'in', 'up', 'behind', 'from', and 'with'. Prepositions hold a privileged position as parts of speech in that they are a ‘closed class’. In other words, they are a select group of words that don’t accept new members to their club. This is in contrast to nouns, adjectives and verbs, which welcome new additions to their respective groups all the time.

While prepositions are limited in number, they are important because they act as vital markers to the structure of a sentence; they mark special relationships between persons, objects, and locations. For this reason, we should think carefully about how we incorporate the teaching and learning of prepositions into our classes.

What problems can prepositions cause for learners of English and their teachers?

It’s very difficult to use prepositions correctly in English and they present a number of problems for both teachers and learners.

First, most prepositions, especially the common ones, have several different functions. The preposition ‘at’, for example, has as many as 18 different functions, depending on which dictionary you consult. As vocabulary items in their own right, prepositions can therefore present a major challenge and it's not unusual for learners of English to ask teachers to explain what a word such as 'at' means.

Second, there is no logical way of deciding which preposition goes with a particular noun, verb or adjective. Consider these examples: the reason for, arrive at, angry with somebody, on a train. In many instances, the correct preposition cannot be guessed, so the expression must be learned as a whole. The problem is compounded when a particular vocabulary item – again it’s those commonly used ones that are often guilty – flirts with many different prepositions, making teaching and learning a longer process than we may initially account for. Consider the adjective 'available'. As a teacher, which of the following would you prioritise?

  • Tickets are available from the box office.
  • Not enough data is available to scientists.
  • No figures are available for the number of goods sold.
  • There are plenty of jobs available in the area.

All of these sentences are correct, yet in each case the adjective goes with a different preposition. We need to consider how we would deal with phrases such as 'the reason for' and the best way to teach words such as 'available', that go with multiple prepositions.

Finally, learners' native language can 'get in the way' of the learning process and interfere with correct English usage. This is perhaps never more true than in the form of prepositional errors. For example, some expressions in English do not use a preposition but the same expression in another language does, and vice versa. In my teaching context, where the majority of learners are native Turkish speakers, I constantly hear sentences like ‘he married with her’, ‘I hate from that’ and ‘I accessed to the internet.’ Another problem I regularly encounter among Turkish learners relates to the multiplicity of uses of particular prepositions. Turkish has one preposition serving the same purpose as 'in', 'on' and 'at' in English, making it difficult for my learners to distinguish between their various uses.

A few tips for learning and teaching prepositions of place and movement

Go with the tried and trusted basics

Following the pattern that most course books take, i.e., dealing with prepositions in manageable chunks, is not a bad way to go. Teaching prepositions of time, place and movement, for instance, at different times, will enable learners to build up their knowledge of prepositions slowly and steadily. Doing so will be much more effective than, say, trying to teach every use of 'in' at the same time.

Engage learners in physical movement

The game Simon Says is great for reviewing prepositions of place and movement with young learners, as you can give directions for students to move around, such as ‘Simon Says stand on your chair’ or ‘Simon Says get under your desk.’ Learners respond well to the movement and start using the prepositions naturally.

With adult learners, a competitive timed review game can work really well. Start by dividing the class into teams, say a sentence and then have them take turns drawing it on the board. If you say ‘the dog is behind the chair’, the learners have to draw a corresponding image, which can be graded according to speed or accuracy, depending on which is more enjoyable for the class.

Use visual stimuli

Infographics provide learners with strong images to help visualise the preposition – Picktochart is a great resource for creating these. Bitstrips is a great resource for creating cartoon images, which are universally popular and very easy to comprehend. You can start off by preparing infographics and cartoons for your learners, but an effective way to get them working with the language is to have them prepare infographics themselves. 

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