Leaving phrasal verbs and their many particles aside, we have plenty to talk about when it comes to teaching prepositions. From beginner to advanced, students complain about the difficulty of mastering English prepositions. Are we surprised by something or at something? Do you talk to someone or with someone? Is there anything we can do to facilitate learning when it comes to prepositions?
I’m not aware of any sure-fire method to mastering prepositions quickly and effectively, so if anybody reading this is, please enlighten me. I’ve concluded that once prepositions of location and direction are covered, the remaining uses of prepositions are best treated in the context of vocabulary and not grammar. You can memorize words and their definitions, but that doesn’t mean you can use them meaningfully and accurately. Similarly, you can learn that with implies together and for conveys a purpose, but that doesn’t make it easier to decide which of the following is correct: Let me help with you./ Let me help for you./ Let me help you. Also, you can memorize charts of adjective + preposition combinations (e.g. content with) and verbs that are followed by prepositional phrases (e.g. ask for/ ask about), but only by using these collocations in one’s oral and written expression can a person internalize them.
The key is to be thorough when teaching new words. Let’s say the topic is people’s states and feelings. Hungry is first on the list. When we teach hungry to beginner students, we can have them practice making statements using hungry for (something). As students speak about the upcoming lunch hour, they can question one another about what they’re hungry for. In doing so, they are demonstrating their understanding of the word as well as their ability to use the word in communication. The conclusion: we must teach the meaning and use of new vocabulary.
It’s also necessary to test and confirm students’ knowledge of vocabulary outside the context of a vocabulary lesson. At all levels, we can encourage students to speak in longer phrases if not full sentences to draw out those collocations and solidify them. For example, after reading a passage with low intermediate students, you ask: “How does the man in the story feel?” A student volunteers: “Jealous.” This is great vocabulary, but it doesn’t reveal the student’s full ability to use it. You then ask: “Of who(m)?” The student has the chance to pick up the cue and answer: “Of his brother.” You restate this for everyone’s benefit: “So the man is jealous of his brother. Does everyone agree?”
If we take the time to teach vocabulary thoroughly and later make the effort to reinforce collocations when opportunities present themselves, our students stand a much better chance of working with rather than against the array of English prepositions.