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Teaching Prepositions

When I google or yahoo “teaching prepositions” and “preposition games” I don’t find much that I would be able to use in a communicative-ish class of adults. Much is geared towards kids – often native English speaking kids – and much consists of written practice (which is not at all hard to find by paging through a book of practice exercises in the teachers’ room). This doesn’t mean the materials themselves are bad, but rather that you are not presented with a wealth of options by a simple google search. You can search through more pages of results or plug in different search terms, or you can bookmark particular sites to visit when you’re in need of good stuff generally, such as:

EFL Classroom 2.0 Resources

BogglesWorld (conspicuously missing a grammar section, but for flash cards and five pages of links for Adult ESL, a good resource)
Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day Blog
TEFLtastic Worksheets
Headway and Cutting Edge sites

Prepositions of place: in front of, next to, behind, opposite, etc.

These usually come up in lower levels. The meanings are literal and in my experience, students don’t have that much trouble learning them, at least compared to other prepositions (see below). I’ve had both Headway and Cutting Edge as coursebooks when prepositions of place came up, and found the activities fine. Supplement them with additional practice and revision and you’re good to go. When you look for communicative practice – the jigsaw map activity or “spot the differences” are both good – just make sure you have covered all the prepositions necessary to complete the activity.

Other prepositions…


…are hard because they can rarely be translated and just have to be memorized. Slavic language speakers I’ve taught use “on” way too much, because their preposition which is translated as “on” is used differently: “Are you angry on me?” “Thank you on your help.” Some prepositions have detailed and complex, though not particularly logical, rules for use, making it in my view more practical to practice and go by ear than try to elicit logical rules for when to use them.

For example, is there really a logical reason we say “angry at” (but not “interested at”) instead of “angry on”? I think you could come up with a lengthy explanation for either, and this is why I’d recommend just learning them rather than analyzing “why” we use “at” and not “on.”

Prepositions that frequently “go with” an adjective (responsible for, interested in, tired of, etc.) make for nice drilling or at least possible memorization. Phrasal verbs though are a horse of a different color. Books often teach sets of phrasal verbs (take over, give up) as relatively random groups, which I can concede is just a practical way of doing it. However I don’t personally see much use in drilling those particular combinations because it’s the meaning that is important to know. What good is it to memorize “take over” as a word combo if you don’t know what it means? Leaving the meaning aside, “take” can also very well be paired with “up”, “on”, or “out”. You need knowledge of the meaning of the combo and the meaning of the sentence to figure out which one is correct, not just rote memorization of take and over together.

Instead of drilling, I like an activity like this: I read out a sentence like – ‘If there are two sisters in a family, they are usually jealous of each other” or “Parents are responsible for whatever their children do up to the age of 18 and not after” – and students have two minutes to discuss with a pair whether or not they agree with the statement. I go through a handful of these, discussing a few of the more interesting ones as a group, and then give students a hand out where they have to fill in the missing preposition – in the very same sentences – based on memory. You can also check orally, which may even make for better practice, but in my experience students like to have it in writing as well. To give them a higher chance of success, give them prepositions to chose from.

This vocabulary activity could be adapted as another good way to basically drill these; so could three truths and a lie (using a phrasal verb – or whatever you are studying – in each sentence), though it can be time consuming.