Teaching Proverbs: What to do with that proverbial bridge?

Don’t cross that bridge before you come to it. This is a familiar proverb, one of those succinct and wise expressions we rattle off when commenting on everyday situations. It’s often hard to translate proverbs because they are so colorful and clever, yet their meanings are important to understand. Proverbs are a reflection of a culture and woven tightly into communication. For these reasons proverbs have their place in language instruction.

How can we help our students learn proverbs?  Some common practices are a good illustration of waiting to cross the bridge until you come to it: address a proverb in the context of a reading passage, a listening passage, or when it slips out in your own speech.

Those are good and helpful practices, but let’s consider an alternative:  You bring a proverb to the students’ attention deliberately, that is, before a chance encounter. Wait, you say. Doesn’t this mean there’s a lack of context? Not necessarily. It all depends on your presentation. Here are two suggestions:

  • Wall of Proverbs – You’ve likely heard of word walls and perhaps have used them in some way in your own classroom. Typically, a word wall is used as an interactive display of common words to promote reading among children in their first language. Could we not adapt the concept for proverbs? Each week add one or two proverbs to the wall. Avoid a clutter, limit the number of proverbs displayed at one time, and recycle old ones to increase familiarity. At the start of the week, call attention to the newest additions, explain their meanings, and give examples. Then make a practice of referring to them a couple of times throughout the week. For instance, when assigning homework you can remind students not to procrastinate by pointing to the proverb of the week: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Or when asking students to work in pairs, you point to a proverb posted the week before: Two heads are better than one.
  • Proverb Summaries – Consider activities that present and activate a small list of proverbs through conversation or writing. In the activity Proverb Summaries, you list 4-5 proverbs on the board and explain their meanings. Then each student can choose a proverb to sum up a personal experience. Their choices are shared either with a partner or in a small group. Model:

Question: Which proverb best reflects how your weekend was spent? Why?

Choices:               (1) The early bird catches the worm. / (2) All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. / (3) If you can’t beat them, join them. / (4) Every dog has its day. / (5) What goes up must come down.

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