TESOL Connections

Cuisenaire Rod Activities for Language Development

by Sarah Sahr

Cuisenaire rods are counting blocks used in math to help students with basic math functions. The activities here introduce you to ways to use the rods for language development with your lower proficiency students; work on comparisons, syllables, and parts of speech. If you don't have access to Cuisenaire rods, use the template provided here to create your own personal classroom sets! 

Alright, ESL teachers! Walk down to the maths department and borrow all their Cuisenaire rods! What are Cuisenaire rods, you ask? Simply, they are counting blocks to help students with basic math functions. They vary in length (length 1 to length 10) and color, with each length always assuming a specific color. (E.g., the 1 cm rod is always white, and the 10 cm rod is always orange.) While working in Viet Nam, I was introduced to ways Cuisenaire rods could be used for language development. The reason: Cuisenaire rods are able to take abstract concepts and make them more concrete. So, like most teachers, I took these ideas and tried to make them my own. I found that some students took to it like “fish to water”! Others took some convincing. You be the judge.

Side note: Because Cuisenaire rods are a little bit expensive, all activities are set up to be done in groups of two or more students. I would say, 10–15 Cuisenaire rod sets would be enough for most of the activities below (obviously, if you have a class of 50 students, your groups will be larger, but still doable. I have had success in grouping five students to one Cuisenaire rod set).

If you are able, construction paper or card stock can be a great substitute. Use the included Cuisenaire rod template, or make your own: you’ll want to make at least five of each color or, if color isn’t an option, just measure out the lengths (you’ll need a ruler). Construction would go like this:

1 cm   white
2 cm   red
3 cm   light green
4 cm   crimson
5 cm   yellow 

6 cm   dark green
7 cm   black
8 cm   brown
9 cm   blue
10 cm   orange  

Most Cuisenaire rod sets come with multiple blocks, meaning more than one of each color. Depending on the activity, three complete Cuisenaire rod sets can go a long way.

Materials: Cuisenaire rods (and maybe some flashcards, paper, etc.) or Cuisenaire rod template.
Audience: These activities are geared mostly for early primary students. Their lack inhibitions allow for such adventures! However, with some adaption, secondary and adult beginning proficiency learners might like them—especially the more advanced parts of speech activities.
Duration: Activities vary.

Create a Zoo for Comparisons
Cuisenaire rods and flashcards
Pull all the animal flashcards out of your collection. Assign each animal a Cuisenaire rod. It would be best to make sure you relate the sizes of the rods to the sizes of the animals (e.g., the elephant gets the size 10 Cuisenaire rod, the parrot gets the size 2 Cuisenaire rod). Go over each pair to make sure students know which Cuisenaire rod represents each animal:

What color is the elephant? (Orange)
What color is the lion? (Black)
Hold up the penguin. (Students hold up the light green)
Hold up the mouse. (Students hold up the white)

From here, move onto comparisons: tiny/tinier/tiniest, small/smaller/smallest, large/larger/largest, big/bigger/biggest, or even fat and thin. Have students line up the “animals” from biggest to smallest or smallest to biggest. Ask some questions:

What animals are bigger than lions?
What animals are smaller than monkeys?

Allow for time to have group mates talk with each other about the “animals.” If possible, have the group create a story about the zoo animals. They must animate the Cuisenaire rods: What movements do the animals make? How do animals interact?

Materials: Cuisenaire rods
First, some background on the magic of Cuisenaire rods. Rods are measured out by centimeters. The smallest Cuisenaire rod is white and 1 cm in length. Next comes red at 2 cm (see chart list above), etc. When working with spelling and syllable activities, it’s best to remember the lengths of rods. For example, as a warm up to the next activity, you could ask students “How many letters does cat have?” Because cat has three letters, students would hold up the light green (3 cm) Cuisenaire rod. If you said house, students would hold up the yellow (5 cm) rod.

If you are helping students with basic reading skills, having students break words into syllables can be useful. For example: first, count the number of letters in the word chocolate (8). Next, how many syllables? When I say chocolate, it has three, choc-o-late. Students would need to find the correct Cuisenaire rod for the number of letters in each syllable:

  • crimson (4 letters) - white (1 letter) – crimson (4 letters)

More examples:

  • banana: red-light green-white
  • house: yellow
  • car: light green
  • elephant: red-white-crimson
  • brother: yellow-red
  • library: red-crimson-white
  • magician: red-red-crimson
  • characteristic: crimson-red-light green-red-light green

Take it one step further… which syllable receives stress? If students are breaking down brother, there would be a yellow (5 cm) Cuisenaire rod for broth and a red (2 cm) Cuisenaire rod for er. To show stress, students would push the yellow Cuisenaire rod a few centimeters higher than the red:

Parts of Speech (Part 1): Sentence Structure
Cuisenaire rods and sentence strips
Start simple. Give groups of students a sentence strip with a simple sentence:

The girl plays soccer on the pitch.

Have students put a blue Cuisenaire rod on the nouns, the dark green Cuisenaire rods on the verb, the red Cuisenaire rods on the preposition, and, if they’re able, the white Cuisenaire rods on the article.

Turn the sentence strip over. The group of students should make an original sentence with the same sentence structure: article, noun, verb, noun, preposition, article, noun.

List the colors on the board and the part of speech for each color, adding more advanced parts of speech as your students progress:

Arrange the colors in the order of a complex sentence, and have students complete the sentence:

Parts of Speech (Part 2): Sentence Stress
Cuisenaire rods
Have students take the sentence they created in Part 1 of the Part of Speech activity and push the most important word up a few centimeters to show stress. What’s interesting about this activity is how students will have different opinions. For example, in the sentence, “The happy students eagerly practice English in class,” some students might push up the blue “English” Cuisenaire rod while other students might push the orange “happy” Cuisenaire rod. This is a great conversation starter! Ask students why they chose a particular Cuisenaire rod over another.

Cuisenaire rods
Ask students to build “your school and school yard” or “the school of your dreams” only using the Cuisenaire rods. It would be best if students could spread out on the floor and really take some space. It is essential that they work in groups for this project. As students are working, walk around the room, monitor their English use, and ask questions.

Once their perfect schools are made, have students tell stories of the students who attend the school, what classes they take, what activities they play, what food they eat, what they learn.You’d be amazed at the authentic language that comes out.

Download this lesson plan (PDF)
and the Cuisenaire Rod Template (PDF)

You can find past TESOL Connections lesson plans and activities in the TESOL Connections archives, or you can visit the TESOL Resource Center. From there, search Keywords “TESOL Connections,” and you will find about 20 resources by Sarah Sahr.


Sarah Sahr works at TESOL and is currently pursuing her doctorate in education administration and policy at the George Washington University. Her professional career has taken her all over the world, most notably as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia and as a traveling school teacher/administrator with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Sarah is also a certified ashtanga yoga instructor and has managed an eco-lodge in Chugchilan, Ecuador.


TC Quick Tip: Foreign Currencies as Materials to Teach Language and Culture

by Jeanne Beck

Money, like food or clothing, is universal, but the characteristics of world currencies are vastly variable, and can teach students about places and cultures all over the globe—or right where they're living. Jeanne Beck provides six topics about money, along with interesting facts and trivia, to discuss with your students, as well as activities to use in class. For Grades 3–8+. 

Audience: Grades 3–8+

Money, like food or clothing, is universal. Students are drawn to similarities and differences between their country’s money and foreign currencies. Beyond using money for counting practice, teachers can introduce students to other cultures, including their own! If you don’t have a foreign currency readily available, don’t worry! A simple web search will bring up the images and cultural information you need.

Here are six topics you can explore with money, along with questions to ask and some interesting facts to share:

1. Images of Famous People
Questions to ask: Who are these people? Why are they important?


  • South Korea’s currency depicts famous 15th–16th century scholars, writers, and royalty.
  • The King of Thailand is the only person depicted on the front of Thailand’s currency, the baht.

You can also look at the clothing the people are wearing.

2. Other Images
Questions to ask:
What kind of images are on the money? Buildings? Monuments? Natural resources? What do you think they represent, and what do they say about the country?


  • Taiwan’s 1,000NTD banknote has children studying a globe.
  • Ghana’s 5 cedi banknote depicts the University of Ghana’s library.

Some European countries just have one image for all of their Euro coins, whereas other countries highlight various people or landmarks.

3.  Language
Questions to ask:
How many languages can you find? Why do you think they used this/these language(s)?


  • The USA’s Hawaii 25 cent coin is the only U.S. coin that contains a language other than English.
  • Jordanian dinars, like many currencies, have their home language and English on their banknotes.
  • Indian banknotes have their values written in 17 languages!

4. Numbers
Questions to ask:
Can you find Arabic numerals? Chinese numerals? Is it easy to find a number you can understand?”


  • The Japanese 5 yen coin doesn’t have any Arabic numerals, only Chinese numerals. 
  • Some U.S. coins don’t have numerals. (The 5 cent coin reads “five cents,” and the 10 cent coin reads “one dime.”)

5. Shape and Size
Questions to ask:
What shape are the coins? Round? Pentagonal? Hexagonal? What about the banknotes? Are the pieces of currency different sizes—and how might the sizes affect their use?


  • Japanese 5 and 50 yen coins have holes in the center.
  • Israeli new shekel banknotes are all the same size.

6. Colors
Questions to ask:
Are the banknotes different colors, or the same? What about the coins?


  • Venezuelan bolivars are very colorful banknotes, with famous people on the obverse (printed vertically, not horizontally!), and animals on reverse.
  • Canada made the world’s first and second colored coins.

Here are a few activities I’ve done with U.S. 25 cent coins (quarters), which depict the 50 states. You could do similar activities with any country’s money.

1. Look at coins and guess what the state is famous for, and then find out if their predictions are correct by using the educator’s section of the U.S. Mint website. This has worked especially well with kids in the USA.

  • Some coins to use for young learners for vocabulary building include:
    • Tennessee: guitar, trumpet, violin
    • Wisconsin: cow, corn, cheese
    • Alaska: bear, fish, river, trees

Check the students’ background knowledge by asking which images they know, and introduce the new vocabulary through word or picture cards. Follow up by asking students if the images on their own state quarter is fitting; if you’re teaching EFL, ask students about the images on their local currency.

  • Intermediate level learners might enjoy learning about monuments or famous places: 
    • Arizona: Grand Canyon
    • New York: Statue of Liberty
    • Missouri: Gateway Arch

Students could learn about these places through discovery learning, or present about them to other students in a jigsaw activity.

2. When teaching internationally, after students learn about U.S. coins, have them imagine that their country is going to mint a coin for their city, province, or region, and that they have been assigned to design it. Students can design the coin individually or in small groups and explain, in writing or aloud, what pictures they drew and why. It a great way for the students to better appreciate their local culture, and for teachers from outside the region to learn about it. This could work for American students too!

Some notes for teaching about U.S. coins outside of the United States:

  • Kids will ask if you can only spend the coin in that state; let them know you can find them and spend them anywhere!
  • Famous people on U.S. coins may not be well known internationally; (i.e. Helen Keller, Alabama; King Kamehameha, Hawaii) this could be a good opportunity for students to learn about them.
  • 25 cents is not a common currency denomination. When you first introduce American money, have the students guess the amount and encourage them by saying “higher!” or “lower!”

Download this article (PDF) 


Jeanne Beck is an assistant professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea. Originally from the United States, she has taught in the United States, Japan, and South Korea.


Culture in the Classroom and the Language of Folklore

by Yuka Kuroda
Folktales contain a widely understood "language" that allows students to engage in cross-cultural discourse.
Handout included. 

Representation in folklore and folktales reveal much about the particulars of a certain people. The magical realism, as well as the fantastical nature of much of folklore, calls for the audience to allow for a suspension of their sense of reality. Despite this, folktales and folklore often convey a thematic element (a moral, a lesson, etc.) that many concede as being universally accepted human truths. Given this characteristic, these tales have the potential to be understood to a wide degree across cultures; that is to say, folktales convey a cross-cultural, yet often familiar and mutual “language.”

Why Folktales Work for ELLs
Incorporating these tales into the ESL classroom will serve the following purposes:

  • to call upon the students’ existing schemata (already existing knowledge), thereby facilitating comprehension of the English text; 
  • to attempt to lower the affective filter and effectively address the “stage fright” aspect of discourse in the second language; and 
  • to incorporate culture into the language classroom. 

Because a tale pertaining to the students’ native language and native culture will be supported by their schemata (Rumelhart, 1980), the presentation of these tales or the readings thereof, even in English, will be better understood and received by the students than stories without familiar content (Gunderson, 2009). In one study on language comprehension and the cultural background of texts, Iranian students were able to better comprehend a translated but unadapted (i.e., not simplified) text from Iranian folklore than were native English speakers. (Johnson, 1981). 

Even when reading a folktale of foreign origins, because these types of tales are often expected to be of a supernatural and magical nature, a sort of common ground is established in this shared understanding, which will also serve to lower the students’ “affective filter” (Krashen, 1987), reducing the “stage fright” aspect of language learning. The idea here is also for the students to engage in cross-cultural discourse, sharing their respective knowledge and broadening their language abilities through opportunities to demonstrate their own cultural expertise.

Given that a reader’s comprehension is significantly affected by content schema, that learners find texts from their own cultures easier to understand, and that the cultural origin of the text and the students’ understanding of the text are directly related (Floyd & Carrell, 1987), implementing a curriculum that focuses on such tales provides a backdrop against which students are be able to study the implications of language and culture, and their inherent relationship.

Sample Activities
These activities can be easily adapted to serve as a tool at any level of English learning. At the lower level, students may be asked to share a tale with traditions in their native culture. This can be done with simple words and sentences, and perhaps illustrations to supplement what is semantically lacking; shifting the focus from language to culture will enable the student to lower their affective filter. At more advanced levels, students may be asked to compose a rendition of a familiar tale, or compare and contrast their respective presentations with those of classmates via oral and written discourse.

Activity 1: “The Girl in White”
Here is an example activity using the Mexican ghost story, “The Girl in White,” focusing on reading at the intermediate level:

Prereading: Give the title of the tale, introducing it as a ghost story. Ask students to share ghost stories with which they are already familiar, especially ones that come to mind when they hear the title, “The Girl in White.” After sharing their own tales, have students brainstorm what this particular tale may be about, based on the title. Their ideas should be written out on the board, on slides, etc., so that the entire class can visibly revisit them.

Reading: During reading, have students mark unfamiliar phrases and words.

Postreading: Compare and contrast the actual tale and the brainstormed ideas from the prereading exercise. As a class, build a word bank of the marked unfamiliar words and phrases. Explain and provide definitions of these words and phrases. Then, have students write a summary of the tale, using at least 10 of the newly acquired words and phrases. As a more challenging exercise, students can be asked to compare and contrast elements of ghost stories from their culture and the one they have just read.

Furthermore, this activity can be easily adapted and expanded so that students may individually compose summaries of tales of their choice, which may then be shared with the rest of the class, in order to facilitate cultural discourse.

Activity 2: Fill-in-the-Blanks Folktales
Another activity that may require more prep time, but that can effectively get each student actively involved, is as follows:

  • Invite students to find and bring to class (taken from a book, printed from a website, etc.) a folktale from their respective cultures, or one that they find particularly fascinating. In class or as homework, have students compose a summary of their stories. 
  • Collect the summaries and original stories, then edit the students’ summaries, making corrections as necessary. Hand back the corrected summaries, then have students submit a typed and revised copy. (This step can be done by the instructor, but having the students correct their own mistakes is ideal.) 
  • The revised summaries can be distributed to the rest of the class; however, the distributed copies will have “blanks” for some key information. Have each student present his/her story while the rest of the class fills in the “blanks” of the corresponding summary. Examples of a summary and handout with missing information based on the story “How the Rabbit Lost His Tail” can be found in Appendix A (.docx) and Appendix B (.docx), respectively.

Incorporating these tales encourages the opportunity for students to present their own heritage while acknowledging the heritage of others, and being able to do so in the target language. English is used as a mode of mutual correspondence while contextually harboring the students’ cultures. If we are to consider the ESL classroom as a cross-cultural arena, the use of folklore and folktales will serve to encourage culture while fostering language acquisition through an effective method that serves both pragmatic and critical functions by means of allowing simultaneous presentation and education of language and culture.


Gunderson, L. (2009). ESL (ELL) literacy instruction: A guidebook to theory and practice. New York and London: Routledge.

Floyd, P., & Carrell, P. L. (1987). Effects on ESL reading of teaching cultural content schemata. Language Learning, 37(1), 89–108.

Johnson, P. (1981). Effects on reading comprehension of language complexity and cultural background of a text. TESOL Quarterly, 15, 169–181

Krashen, S. D. (1987). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. London: Prentice-Hall International.

Rumelhart, D.E. (1980). Schemata: the building blocks of cognition. In R. J. Spiro, B. C. Bruce, & W. F. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical issues in reading comprehension (pp. 33–50). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Download this article (PDF)
and Appendix A (.docx)
and Appendix B (.docx)


Yuka Kuroda is a graduate student at California State University, Fullerton, pursuing an English MA and a TESOL MS. She received her BA in comparative literature, with a minor in French, from UCLA. Her native languages are Japanese and English. She hopes to specialize in teaching pronunciation and speaking.

Flipping Your EL Classroom: A Primer

by John Graney
This article breaks down the flipped instructional model into three easy parts, allowing you to engage your English learners in more cognitively demanding activities in the classroom. 

How many of us have had this experience? We attended a class, took notes, and felt confident we understood the concept being taught; however, when doing the homework assignment, what seemed so clear in class proved opaque? We became frustrated and sometimes gave up because everything we tried, what we thought the teacher showed us, or what was in our notes, did not work. Perhaps you felt something was wrong with you because the lecture had been so clear and you were unable to apply what you had been taught in class. With enough of these struggles while the class moved forward, you may have fallen hopelessly behind.

The Flip
The flipped classroom seeks to change this scenario by bringing homework into class time. Thus, learners engage in more cognitively demanding activities with the teacher present. The frustrated student, the confused learner, the student in danger of tuning out gets attention and support when they need it (Bergmann & Sams, 2012). In turn, the instructional part of the learning moves outside the classroom. Now teachers can reach learners at their point of need or frustration and build on that point as a learning opportunity.

In a sense, what is flipped is the clock. The clock at home gets used on instruction, on piquing curiosity, on initial exploration. When the classroom clock starts ticking, teachers spend their time interacting with students on activities that they used to assign as homework. Like all good homework assignments, these activities still challenge students to use what they have learned. 

The Flipped Classroom in Three Parts
We can break a flipped classroom lesson into three parts: work at home, work in class, work after class. A lesson on subject-verb agreement might look like this:

Students prepare for the class by watching the videos and/or studying the textbook explanations. Perhaps, the teacher has inserted a quiz into the video or accompanying the video. In class, the teacher sets up the activity and hands out any needed materials. The students go to work on the activity individually, in pairs, or in groups. While the students work, the teacher moves around the classroom and diagnoses needs and problems through over-the-shoulder assessments (formative assessments). Some problems can be addressed immediately through interventions such as a tutorial, an explanation to a small group, or a mini lecture. The teacher may teach the same point to several students but vary the approach to meet the needs of the student or students. For after class, the teacher can assign an activity to expand upon or deepen the learning taking place in the classroom.

What happens in the flipped classroom revolves around the learners' needs. The classroom activities challenge learners to apply the information and instruction from the videos. The activities may elicit the misunderstandings, they may take the students deeper into the subject, and they should provide students with opportunities to learn or relearn the elements of the lessons that they find difficult. Learners benefit from this approach because the teacher is available when the learner has a problem.

By moving instruction outside of class, learners gain control over their learning. Learners have the power of the pause button to control the videos. Learners who get lost in class as the teacher explains more quickly than they can process can now stop the video and review. They can use the Internet to research issues the video may have raised. They even have the power not to watch the videos and learn in another way—though teachers can encourage students to watch the videos by using in-video quizzes or quizzes with an embedded form.

The Videos
Because videos have become so closely associated with the flipped classroom, let's consider two ways to provide videos for a class: Finding appropriate videos and creating your own videos.

Finding an Existing Video
The first way involves finding a video that fits the teacher's needs through online through sites like YouTube, TeacherTube, TED-Ed, Educreations, or ShowMe. As the flipped classroom becomes more popular, better instructional videos should become available. Still, the teacher needs to spend a good amount of time selecting the most appropriate video or videos for each lesson.

Creating a Video
The second option involves making your own instructional videos. Several screencasting applications exist online such as Screencast-o-matic, and there are free screencrasting applications like Jing or Camstudio. See the article “5 Free Screencasting Apps for Creating Video Tutorials” for a more complete listing.

Investing some money in a program like Camtasia or similar applications can make the editing process easier. With an iPad, several applications can help, including Educreations, Showme, Doceri, and Explain Everything, which have been reviewed on Crazy Teaching. Movie editing applications come free on the PC (Windows Live MovieMaker) and the Mac (iMovie), if you decide to shoot a video using a video camera. Lecture capture applications like Tegrity can also be used. If a teacher makes a video, a general guideline is to aim for a 5-minute final product. Before making a video, especially one that lasts more than a minute or two, it is wise to storyboard it first.

Other Nonvideo Options
Much attention has been given to the videos with the flipped classroom. Videos are not the key element of the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom is about helping learners the best way we can. The videos are the sexy part of flipping, but teachers can use a variety of resources for the initial exploration of a topic. Reading the textbook seems the most obvious, but researching a topic through reading blogs, going to sites explaining a topic, completing a survey, or making a slide show are other possibilities.

The initial engagement with the topic can be designed to awaken curiosity or present a problem to be explored more deeply in class. In other words, the flipped classroom approach makes the learner the central part of the process and works outward to find ways to help them learn better. Each teacher will do the flip differently to fit his or her learners.

The flipped classroom challenges learners to take control of their learning. Some students may find this responsibility one they take on reluctantly. The students used to "playing school" successfully may find the approach frustrating as it makes demands beyond simply having the correct answer. The students struggling with the material can benefit from getting support from teachers and fellow students in the mistake making that accompanies language learning.

By flipping the clock, teachers have more time with their learners. Teachers engage their learners not from the front of the room but next to them, and while the teacher still has a role as an explainer, he or she diagnoses from ongoing formative assessments that will guide the explanations. Why explain to the students who already get it? The teacher may need to explain to only one or two students; moreover, the explanations can be targeted and adjusted for each student or group. The flipped classroom requires a flexible and adaptable teacher able to use the new technology and creativity to meet the learners' needs.


Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education.

Download this article (PDF)


John M. Graney is the ESL coordinator at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. He has been an English language teacher since 1979 when he began as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has taught in China, the Phillippines, and Mali as well as in intensive English programs in the United States.


Grammatically Speaking

by T. Leo Schmitt
In the October Grammatically Speaking column, grammar expert T. Leo Schmitt discusses prepositions, including general rules for use and teaching tips for ELLs. 

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org. We welcome all types of language questions.

Grammatically Speaking,
I have many students who struggle with using correct prepositions and prepositional phrases. What do you suggest?

Thank you, Adela

Dear Adela,

Thank you for this challenging question. It is certainly an issue that I have seen many of my students wrestle with and one that perplexes many learners of English.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation
Prepositions are an interesting group of words. They are a limited class, like conjunctions and pronouns. Unlike verbs, adjectives, and nouns, they are not limitless, but rather comprise a relatively small group and it is comparatively rare for new prepositions to enter the language.

Prepositions can appear as "particles" of phrasal  verbs such as “come on!”, “What to Look Out for if Buying a Home with Acreage in Clarksville,” and “Am I allowed to make up a quote?” These function quite differently from prepositions in prepositional phrases. I will attempt to deal with them in a later column.

Prepositions generally form prepositional phrases by joining together with a noun. In these cases, prepositions require a noun as their object. Thus we have “I went to take a morning walk in the local park,” “chatting with my friend,” or “for king and country.”  They can also join together with an entire prepositional phrase, as in “You can sync up to about 2GB of photos.” We can note a few things here. First, the preposition in English usually comes first in prepositional phrases. (Pre- is the Latin prefix for before, thus its position is before the noun.) Second, while the preposition and noun are the requirements for a prepositional phrase, the noun may also be, and often is, part of a noun phrase containing determiners and adjectives. Similar to adverbs, prepositional phrases are typically used to indicate time, manner, or place.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of good rules for prepositions, and even those have their exceptions. The two simplest ones that can benefit students, especially beginners, are for time and location.

Preposition Rules for Time
For time, we generally use:

Preposition Rules for Place
For place, we generally use:

While these two patterns are very useful for some basic communication, they do not cover much of the usage of prepositions, especially for more advanced texts. Verbs, nouns, and adjectives can all take prepositions, but many do not. We say that we “wait for the day” and are “in love with someone,” a “mother to your child,” and “scared of the future.” There are no clear patterns on why we use any of these particular prepositions. They behave much more like vocabulary than any kind of grammar. This is one of the reasons that so many learners of English struggle with prepositions. Indeed, prepositions are often the last part of language that advanced students master, simply because they have to learn them one by one.

Teaching Tips
We can certainly cover the physical meaning of prepositions, such as in meaning physically inside of something and the basic rules of time and place noted above, but most prepositions occur together with nouns, verbs, or adjectives beyond their physical meaning. For basic communication, it may not be worth focusing on prepositions in such instances, especially if it inhibits fluency.

Thus it makes sense to teach prepositions with new words when covering vocabulary. For example, when you teach the verb believe, it can be helpful for students to know that it often takes the preposition in when talking about a belief (“Do you believe in fate?”), but no preposition when talking about believing a person (“I believe Oprah”). Covering them together can help students form associations between words and their prepositions.

It is also worth highlighting that different prepositions can work with the same verb/adjective/noun, depending on the noun that follows. For example, we say an issue for a person/community or discussion/thought (“issue for Canadians”), an issue in a place or general field (“issue in medicine”), and an issue of a specific topic (“issue of medical ethics”). Such differences can be quite challenging and, although the concept may be introduced to lower level students, it may be best explored in detail by advanced students.

It can also help to explain phrasal verbs briefly in tandem with prepositional phrases, though the two function somewhat differently.

Language Notes
There are also some phrases in English that combine prepositions with adjectives. This is particularly true for for, such as “for good” or “for free.”

Some languages, such as Japanese or Turkish, rather use postpositions, where the meaning of the directional word (to, in, etc.) comes after the noun. Some languages, such as Kurdish, even use circumpositions, which have a part of the word before and part after the noun to which it refers.

Dialects are also notable for variations in usage of prepositions. In most of North America, people wait in line, but in New York City, people wait on line, and in Milwaukee you may be “by Aunt Mary’s” rather than “at Aunt Mary’s” as you would be in the rest of the country. Learners may sometimes be influenced by local variations rather than mainstream usage.

Last Month’s Brain Teaser
What is the problem with the common phrase seen at supermarket checkout aisles “Ten items or less,” and how would you explain it to students?

The first correct response:

The issue with this is that “items” is countable, and so “fewer” should be used; “less” should be used with uncountable nouns like “time,” “water,” “milk,” or “sand.” That said, in spoken English, many speakers use “less” with countable nouns, although this is certainly frowned upon by the educated.

Sometimes a noun has a countable and uncountable version, both with slightly different meanings. When used with less, it is the uncountable version. For example, I can have three rooms in my house, but if I say there is “less room” in my car, I’m using “room” as a substance I can have.
Bill Blond
English Language Program Instructor
University of Michigan-Flint

Thank you for your answer, Bill. As you mention, the key issue is that traditional grammar uses “few” with count nouns and “less” with noncount nouns. Thus we say “fewer bags” but “less luggage.” As you note, some nouns have both count and noncount meanings.

You also note that in spoken English, this traditional rule is often overlooked, with speakers using “less” instead of “fewer.” It is also worth noting that certain terms of measurement, such as money, distance, weight, and time, generally use the word “less” rather than “fewer” even though they are countable. Thus we would say “He has less than five dollars” and “The trip takes less than three hours” rather than using “fewer” in these instances.

“Ten items or less” seems to have similarities with this, and has clearly entered the language as a recognizable phrase, even if it frustrates traditional grammarians. 

This Month’s Brain Teaser
Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned.
  2. Space-age polymer technology and their unique design allow them to swing silently and with low friction to their closed position. 

The best correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.
Please e-mail your responses to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org.


When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country). If your question or response is selected for publication, your name and location will be printed unless you specify otherwise.

Examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the
author’s creations.