Why native-speakers can “guess” the meaning
Words such as up, on and over each evoke a specific mental image, or series of related images, which are shared by all native speakers. This does not mean of course that native speakers can necessarily make explicit in words their exact meaning but that when they come across the word in an unfamiliar context they can spontaneously make a guess at the meaning of the total expression with a high degree of success. This is precisely what many learners of English are often unable to do. Each phrasal verb, each colloquial expression containing a preposition is treated as a new item of vocabulary to be memorised – a slow and laborious process that can never be completed because the number of such expressions is potentially infinite. Native speakers create new ones every day. The number of words such as up, on and over on the other hand, is limited and their meanings can be mastered.. For simplicity’s sake, I will call such words “prepositions” here, though most can also function as adverbs, subordinators, etc., because what I want to emphasise is their base meaning, not their grammatical function.
If as beginners, language learners encounter position and movement prepositions in clear, simple, concrete situations and if they are given adequate time to practice using the words in such situations, they can develop the appropriate mental images which will serve them as inner criteria for using these words thereafter. It is obvious from the frequent mistakes made by many intermediate students that this has not been the case for them. Either the words evoke no clear image or they evoke the image appropriate for a preposition in their own language whose meaning more or less overlaps that of the English word.
For example, French people often assume that the mental images they associate with their preposition à will always be correct for the English proposition at. In French the à in “J’ai acheté un billet à la gare” evokes the same image as at in “I bought I ticket at the station” therefore they feel the image triggered by à in “J’ai courru à la gare” should also be triggered by at in English so they say “I ran at the station” when they mean “I ran to the station“. They make this mistake in spite having been given explanations of the uses of at and to by teachers and having heard and read many examples of their correct usage. This is because the images in our heads are much more present to us than other people’s words.
Here are some of the things that can be done to help false-beginner or intermediate level students create the correct mental images for English prepositions.
Step 1 – Brainstorming
First brainstorm a list of prepositions. That is, write one or two prepositions on the board and ask the students to suggest more words in the same family. Accept all the words and phrases they propose even if they are not all strictly prepositions. For example, accept inside as well as in and into.
After each word ask the students if it has an opposite and if it does, get the students to supply it.
Write the words that have opposites as pairs; the others, just anywhere.
Write each word or phrase on the board in such a way that there is a space to the right of it.
If students ask for meanings of words, tell them that will come later.
Step 2 – students draw images of position and movement words
Have a piece of chalk or a marker for about 8 students. Invite as many students as possible to all come at once and draw the simplest image possible to represent each preposition.
I draw a vertical arrow for up to give the idea of what is wanted. I do it for up because this word is never a problem for French people even though there is no equivalent preposition in French. If up were a challenge for them, I would choose a different one.
It is important that the drawings be very simple and, if possible, not represent people or objects because then the essential significance would not be not clear. For example, for on and off students often draw light bulbs or electric circuits. I accept these as correct, but point out that these words existed in English long before the use of electricity and push them to continue look for a simpler, more basic representation.
Step 3 – adding alternate drawings
When they have finished, or done as many as they can, I ask them to sit down and look at the others’ drawings and decide if they agree or not. If they do not agree, to come and make another drawing, but not to rub out the original drawing. Then the class discusses which drawing is more accurate or if there should be two (or more) drawings to represent different meanings of the word. For example, on can be on either side of a vertical or of a horizontal surface which means 4 separate drawings.
I intervene as little as possible, mainly by asking questions:
- What does the arrow represent?
- What does the line represent?
- What does the circle represent?
- Is it absolutely necessary to use a circle for this word?
- What’s the difference between this drawing and this one?
- Does this word indicate position, movement or both?
They often need more help with some words. I make sure that they represent at by both a dot and by two intersecting lines to make it very clear that it indicates a point.
Some words are very difficult to draw elegantly: in front of and behind for example but, in my experience, as these have never been a problem for students to understand and use and are easy to demonstrate in other ways, it is no real problem.
Prepositions that do not represent movement or position are of course difficult to draw and this in itself helps to establish this characteristic. Sometimes these words are simply rubbed out; other times brackets are put around them. It depends on the level of the group and their expressed problems.
I do offer a drawing for of because in French they use the same word for of and for from. I draw a pie diagram to show that of indicates a relationship (a part of the whole) and not a movement. I am not perfectly satisfied with this and would be glad to know if anyone has a better idea.
To distinguish between to and towards, I ask a student to come to the front of the class and I ask them to go to the door. This is usually done correctly. Then I ask another student to go towards the door. If they also walk right to the door, I ask them to try again. If they are unable to work it out, I ask other students to come and try. Then I get them to distinguish between from and away from in the same way.
The difference between above/below and over/under is also often a problem. I point to the word below and ask if they to find another word they know inside it: low. I ask them for the opposite of low and they give me high. I get them to give examples of things that are low and high n the classroom. I get a student to stand directly under an ceiling light and invite the students to describe the situation so that they find they can say, for example, “We are all below the light but only Dan is under it.”
To clarify the difference between to, over and at, I throw a rod (or any other small object) to a student – simple movement. Then I place a table between the student and myself and throw the rod again to demonstrate over. For obvious reasons, I use a ball of screwed up paper and not a rod to demonstrate the difference between throw a ball to someone and throw it at someone and I refer back to the drawing of two intersecting lines representing at to make it clear that in this situation, one line is the person, the other is the trajectory of the ball and the point is the point of impact.
These are the words for which I usually need to do something to make the meaning clear but with some groups and some individuals other words may pose problems and need help in a similar way.
Step 4 – words are rubbed off the board
I rub off all the words on the board, just leaving the drawings. I ask the students to copy down the drawings and write the appropriate word next to each.
Step 5 – students write words next to the drawings on theboard
I ask students to come and write a preposition next to each drawing. The class decides if it is correct or not.
Step 6 – students demonstrate the meanings with rods
I wipe everything off the board and ask the students to put away their papers.
I ask the students to each take a long rod as the reference point and two other shorter rods.
Then I say aloud the various prepositions which they have to demonstrate with their rods. They can, of course, use their own bodies, hands, pockets, etc. if it seems appropriate.
At this point, it becomes clear that if I say off, they first have to put their rod on something. The same for out and in but not for up and down.
All this for me, is typical of what Silent Way teachers mean when they talk of forcing awareness. It’s not nearly so aggressive as it sounds, is it?
Generally, students have great fun doing this. When the rule of the game is established, students take turns in calling out prepositions for the others to demonstrate. This can take 30 minutes or so.
Step 7 – handout for homework
I give the students my “Position and Movement Words” sheets as homework though I am still not perfectly satisfied with all of my representations. The version they get does not have the prepositions written in as they are in the sheets below – that is the work they have to do. I give these out more for commercial reasons (students often like to go home with bits of paper, naively believing that they will do the learning later) than for pedagogical ones. I usually work in at least two-hour sessions so am able to get through all the steps in one session. Teachers working in shorter time slots would have to spread this work over two or more sessions.
After doing this exercise, any time a preposition problem comes up I either make the appropriate gesture with my hands or I ask the student to do so. In general, the more sensitive students notice my gesture; the others need to be asked to make the gesture many times until they really integrate the feeling for the English preposition concerned.
© Glenys Hanson. 2015. A different version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2002.
“Position and movement words and mental images” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.