Of teaching, learning prepositions

Dhaka,  Monday,   2016-09-23
Published : 23 Sep 2016, 23:54:06

Of teaching, learning prepositions

Of teaching, learning prepositions
Masum Billah
Prepositions are relationship words. A preposition is a word that explains the time, space or logical relationship between the other parts of a sentence. In other words, it links all the other words together, so that the readers can understand how the pieces of the sentence fit. Prepositions are important because they act as vital markers to the structure of a sentence; they mark special relationships between persons, objects and locations. They give clues and guidance regarding how the remainder of the sentence fits together. Prepositions hold a privileged position, when it comes to parts of speech. In other words, they are a select group of words that do not accept new members to their club. This is in contrast to nouns, adjectives and verbs, which welcome new additions to their respective groups all the time.

Prepositions usually come before nouns or gerunds, although a few can come after a noun e.g "two years ago". In all, there are about 150 prepositions in English and they can play a very important role in the language: by expressing spatial and temporal relationships. However, there are many different problems associated with selecting the correct one, for several reasons. One preposition may have many different meanings at different times. We find ten meanings of 'at' in the dictionary. Also, different prepositions can be used with very similar meanings e.g. "in the afternoon", but "on Monday afternoon".

The learners of English, and even many native speakers, sometimes have difficulty with choosing the correct preposition. This is, in part, because there are no real rules that can be followed. In one study, preposition errors represented the largest category, about 29 per cent, of all the grammatical errors by 53 intermediate to advanced non-native speaker students (Bitchener et al., 2005). In addition, in another piece of research, Dalgish (1985) analysed the essays of 350 non-native speaker university students, representing 15 different native languages, and reported that preposition errors were present in 18 per cent of sentences in a sample of text produced by writers from first languages as diverse as Korean, Greek and Spanish.

 As it's very difficult to use prepositions correctly in English and we should think carefully about how we incorporate the teaching and learning of prepositions into our classes. First, most prepositions, especially the common ones, have several different functions. The preposition 'at', for example, has as many as eighteen different functions. As vocabulary items in their own right, prepositions can therefore present a major challenge and it's not unusual for learners of English to ask teachers to explain what a word such as 'at' means.

We sometimes experience that there hardly lies any logic to decide which preposition goes with a particular noun, verb or adjective. If we look at these examples: the reason for, arrive at, angry with somebody, on a train, we cannot easily say which logic we have followed.  In many instances, the correct preposition cannot be guessed, so the expression must be learned as a whole. The problem is compounded when a particular vocabulary item - again it's those commonly used ones that are often guilty - flirts with many different prepositions, making teaching and learning a longer process than we may initially account for. Let's look at the sentences, where prepositions have been used after the adjective 'available': (i) Tickets are available from the box office, (ii) Not enough data is available to the teachers, (iii) No figures are available for the number of goods sold, (iv) There are plenty of arguments available in this area.

When I tell you something just between you and me, knowing the literal meaning of between may help you understand that the purpose of the expression is to draw your attention to the secret information I'm giving you, because it is "located" only in the "empty space" we share, and nowhere else. Simply knowing the meaning of a given prefix or suffix may not make it possible to generate the correct form of any one given word e.g. it's 'ungrateful', but it's 'ingratitude'. However, it greatly increases reading comprehension, and reduces error, both of which help people learn languages more quickly and use them more accurately. Using your knowledge about the preposition's literal meaning makes it possible to really understand the expression in which it is used, and therefore be able to acquire it along with the verb or other expression, the context in which it should be used, etc.

We can teach prepositions using the textbook and it is more practical and easier both for the students and teachers. Consider this passage from the EFT of class VIII. The ethnic people in Bangladesh hold a very important place in the culture of the country. The majority of these people live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The others live in the regions of Mymensingh, Rajshahi and Sylhet. They live in forest areas, in the hills and in rural areas. (But we live in the town. My cousins live in the capital city. My uncles live in Canada). They practise Jhum cultivation. They clear a piece of land in the forest, prepare it and sow seeds in it. They are mostly farmers. By religion they are Hindus, Christians or Buddhists. They speak their own mother tongues. Some of them are the Chakmas, the Marmas, the Tipperas and the Moorangs who live in the Hill Tracts. The Santals live in Rajshahi. The Khasias and the Manipuris live in Sylhet and the Hajangs and the Garos in Mymensingh. (Our ethnic friends. Page-71, EFT-8)

In this passage the preposition 'in' happens mostly and it happens before the name of the place in different forms. While teaching it, the teacher can mention the names of some of places or countries which have not been mentioned in the passage just to make the students familiar with the idea that 'in' happens before the places. Thus the students should be made habituated to transfer their idea they learn in the classroom to other similar fields. This is actually the application of knowledge. Students are learning the use of preposition from the text and they themselves can decide and develop rules of their own looking at and deciding the relationship or reasons of using the preposition. This may be a very practical way of teaching and learning prepositions i.e. first students should be familiar with  how prepositions have been used in a piece of writing. From their reading carefully they will reach a conclusion or discover reasons how prepositions have been used in that particular piece of write-up. The teachers should deal with such a kind of exercises without teaching preposition 'separately' and in loose sentences.

 The writer works for BRAC Education Program as an specialist and writes regularly on various national and international issues.

Email: masumbillah65@gmail.com
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