Creating mental images of English prepositions

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Two Palettes - Jim Dine. The Collection Online. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Follow up

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.


On-line exercises:


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“Position and movement words and mental images” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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10 thoughts on “Creating mental images of English prepositions

  • kamilaofprague

    Dear Glenys,

    I tried this with my elementary adult students working for an international candy producer in the CzechRep. They are using the book Tech Talk Elementary (and while I am not a huge fan of coursebooks this one, by Vicki Hollet, is outstanding and I really enjoy using it). We had gone over the prepositions in unit 11 and then I read this post of yours so I decided to give it a try. Mind you, I was not as systematic and I didn’t manage to get my guys to use simple drawings. Instead, they came up with all these creative drawings for the prepositions, such as a “dog behind a box” etc. But I did follow your steps as far as Step 6. I didn’t have rods so instead I “stole” items from the company cafeteria and had them demonstrate the prepositions with local products. That’s when they got REALLY creative and built what they called a “trash dump” made of two plastic cups, various candies made by the company, two apples and some cables – see the photo in my tweet. At this point I changed your plan and decided to give a try to my “writing twist”, described here (again, Thank you, Rob, this is working so well: I told them they had two minutes to describe the “trash dump” in writing. Afterwards, I took the writing, corrected it, asked them to write the same texts again (2 min) and add more language if they had time. Collected, corrected, did for the third time. In the end, they had written impeccably grammatically correct texts, about five sentences each. We then held a 5-min feedback session in Czech (I sometimes do these to ask how things went) and they all seemed proud of themselves. Later on, when we chatted abot weekend plans, they were all using correct prepositions ! For instance, a “typical” Czech mistake is to say “near of” but they used it correctly: Town A, near town B. All in all, I think this was a very effective class as the guys probably have some sort of “tech-intelligence” and the process of drawing and demonstrating and talking is simply much more effective than learning from a textbook. Than you very much for showing me this way of teaching prepositions. Still – “at”, to my mind, is impossible to draw:-D

    Situation created by Kamila's students
    Imaged added from Kamila’s tweet by Glenys.

    • Glenys Hanson

      Dear Kamila,,

      Thanks so much for describing your “writing twist” and directing me to Rob Whyte’s site that I didn’t know before. I like the activity a lot and I’m sure it’s very effective. I know of a rather similar one described here: Peter Miller – The Invisible Writing Kit_EN.pdf. Don’t know if you can still get carbon paper these days but something similar could be done on a computer or tablet. For most students, it’s short writing activities which work best.

      Did any of your students go on to do my interactive exercises?
      Please tell your students that if they leave comments or suggestions for improving the exercises, I’ll write back.

      Hope it’s OK that I “stole” your photo. If it’s not, let me know and I’ll remove it.

      I have more ideas for working with prepositions – must write them up!

      You’re right about “at” not really being drawable but I felt I had to do something for my French students who don’t distinguish it from “to”.


      • kamilaofprague

        Dear Glenys,

        Thank you for directing me to your interactive exercises. I will certainly give them a go in my next class! As for the Silent Writing Kit, it is the first time I’ve heard about it and seems quite odd. I’m going to need some time to think it over and perhaps give it a try myself before assigning it to my students. You see, I am the kind of person that thinks with a pencil in their hand, cannot imagine not seeing what I write. So yes, interesting food for thought!
        Regarding prepositions, I wanted to make another comment that English and French prepositions are actually easier to teach compared to teaching prepositions to foreigners who are learning Czech, which I teach as well. For what happens in Czech is that each preposition goes with one or more particular cases i.e. the genitive, dative, accusative, etc. Now what we do to make Czech grammar easier to learn is that we break it down by cases and teach them one at a time, adding more details as the students’ level goes up.
        Consequently, what is going to happen if a teacher brainstorms prepositions? A1-B1 (for some students this is about 3 yrs of study) students will add those they might have come across; however, they will use them wrongly in combination with other words because they will not have studied the particular case they come with, and so will be practically incomprehensible. For instance a simple sentence such as: “I often spend the summer in (famous spa town) Karlovy Vary”, which in English and French has really basic grammar, would in Czech require the use of the feminine locative plural, Karlovy Vary being a feminine plural noun, which is normally taught at B1 level! Can you imagine not being able to say “I often spend my summers in Karlovy Vary” for long three years?
        All in all, my point is that many times I am relieved about teaching my “English” classes as the “Czech” classes tend to be, hélas, much less “creative”. However, I do get all sorts of really helpful ideas from the ELT sphere, yet only rarely can I apply these to the different context of Czech grammar. But then again, it all makes me think about some other ways of being creative ways of teaching 14 different forms for each noun
        Sorry if this is not specifically ELT-centered, hope it’s not a problem. And obviously, any ideas from anyone greatly appreciated!

        • Glenys Hanson

          Hi Kamila,

          The Invisible Writing Kit is aimed at people suffering from “writer’s block”. If you’re the sort of person who thinks “pencil in hand” you’re not one of them… but I am. Just using a computer has helped me a lot – I no longer feel I have to get it all right the first time.

          When I brainstormed for prepositions I usually did it at B1 and higher levels where the students were already superficially familiar with all the prepositions but not precise in their use of them. Students that had been taught from the beginning to use prepositions by manipulating physical objects (or people) and describing what they were doing and/or seeing created their own “English” mental images as they did so. They had few problems. However most of the B1 students I taught had learnt by traditional methods where prepositions (and many other elements of the language) were taught in an intellectual way divorced from their own lives and actions. At that level, most of what I did was “remedial” getting students to use and understand in 50 hours or less what they hadn’t acquired in 900 hours of “school English”. (Of course, many school English teachers do not teach in a traditional way and get much better results – but I didn’t meet their students later as adults in my classes.)

          What an interesting situation you find yourself in: teaching one language with one pedagogical approach and another language with a different one! You won’t be surprised if I say I’ve never studied Czech but I have studied – just a little – two other highly infected languages which are reputed to be difficult:

          1) I studied Arabic for two years with the “grammar translation” method. I applied myself diligently and got almost perfect marks for all my homework – but the only things I can actually say I picked up from Arab friends. I could, though, tell you a great deal *about* Arabic grammar.

          2) German, I learnt for only a week but the teacher used the same approach as I do for English (the Silent Way). We had great fun talking all the time. We knew what we were saying because the situations were visible to us. The teacher made sure we produced the appropriate sequences of sounds for each situation but the metalanguage of “cases” and “declensions” was never used.

          Maybe you could try the same in Czech? Give the students the elements they need to say what they want say. I assume that’s the way you, and all Czech kids learnt the language. All children are fluent in the everyday language of their environment by the time they’re five without having any explicit knowledge of grammar. Measured that way, no language is more difficult than another.

          Language teachers have been bemused by the elegant analyses of grammarians, but grammarians create descriptions of the language, they don’t provide teaching tools. We have to look elsewhere for those.


    • Glenys Hanson

      Thanks, Mura, for the link to the gif of prepositions. It’s cute but to my mind doesn’t always distinguish clearly between certain prepositions. However it inspires me to turn my ancient PDFs into something more attractive but still rigorous. The animated gifs all over the place these days often annoy me but they have their place here: to show where prepositions indicate movement and where they don’t. There must be tools which make creating animated gifs easy to create – I’ll investigate.

    • Glenys Hanson

      Hi Mura,

      I’ve been so long to reply because the video made me think long and hard. I don’t think I would ever spontaneously use “above” for a position that was not between the reference object and the sky. I wouldn’t ever use what the Utrecht researchers call “internal perspective”. On first viewing I thought that was what they had observed subjects doing in the experiment they devised. I’ve just listened to video more carefully and realised that the subjects had a forced choice between “on” and “above”. They had to choose one or the other – no other possibilities.

      Isn’t that like putting a dark, blue marker and a red marker on a table and saying “Take the black marker”? I think most people if forced would take the blue marker but that doesn’t prove they see no difference between black and blue.

      In English, we have 20 or so prepositions and prepositional phrases to choose from as well as other position words such as left and right. I hope real life bomb disposal experts are more precise in their instructions – especially as the chances of the bomb being rotated are quite high making “above” an inappropriate word to use. Verbosity is sometimes necessary to avoid ambiguity.

      Cars being rotated are very unlikely – but make for a dramatic clip.

      I hadn’t seen the video before so thanks for posting the link and keeping my mind busy for days.


      PS: Have you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no.

      • eflnotes

        hi Glenys yeah I wonder to what extent the research from Utrecht is talking about Dutch prepositions?

        i don’t think the frame of reference aspect is controversial, but certainly their use of the bomb example can be picked apart e.g. +directly+ above the clock for example

        still i think the first part of the video is useful to get students thinking about being more careful with their use of prepositions

        re p.s. hahahha 🙂