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Activities with Proverbs

Suggestions on using proverbs in your ESL lessons

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Using proverbs as the starting point for a lesson can help open up many avenues for learners to express their own beliefs, as well as discover cultural differences with their classmates. There are a few ways to go about using proverbs during a lesson. This article focuses on providing a number of suggestions for how you can use proverbs in class, as well as integrate them into other lessons. There is also a list of 10 proverbs for each level to help get you started using proverbs in English class.

Proverb Activity Suggestions

Monolingual Class - Translation

If you teach a monolingual class, ask students to translate the proverbs you have chosen into their own mother tongue. Does the proverb translate? You can also use Google translate to help out. Students will quickly discover that proverbs usually do not translate word for word, but that meanings can be expressed with completely different expressions. Choose a few of these and have a discussion concerning the cultural differences that go into proverbs that get at the same meaning, but that have very different translations.

What's the Lesson?

Ask students to write a short story, much like Aesop's fables, for a proverb they have chosen. The activity can start off as a class discussion of the meaning of a few level-appropriate proverbs. Once it's clear students understand, ask students to pair up and create a story that will illustrate a proverb.

Consequences

This activity works especially well for advanced level classes. Choose your proverbs and then lead a class discussion to check proverb understanding. Next, ask students to pair up or work in small groups (3-4 learners). The task is to think of logical consequences that might / could / must / can't happen if a person follows the advice the proverb provides. This is a great way to help students explore modal verbs of probability. For example, If a fool and his money are soon parted is true, then a fool must lose a lot of his / her earnings. Fools might have difficulty understanding real opportunities from those which are false. etc.

Finding an Example in Class

English learners that have been together for a longer period of time might enjoy pointing the finger at other students. Each student should choose a proverb they feel especially applies to someone else in class. Students should then explain why they feel that particular proverb is so fitting with plenty of examples. For classes in which students aren't so familiar with their classmates, ask students to come up with an example from their own group of friends or family.

To begin with, here are ten selected proverbs grouped into appropriate levels.

These ten proverbs or sayings have been chosen for easy vocabulary and clear meaning. It's best not to introduce proverbs that take too much interpretation or explaining.

Beginner

  • Tomorrow is another day.
  • Boys will be boys.
  • Easy come, easy go.
  • Live and learn.
  • Never too old to learn.
  • Slow but sure.
  • One step at a time.
  • Time is money.
  • Eat to live, not live to eat.
  • There's no place like home.

Intermediate

Intermediate level proverbs begin to challenge students with vocabulary that is less common. Students will need to interpret these sayings, but the allegories used are less culturally based which can impede understanding.

  • Any port in a storm.
  • Blood is thicker than water.
  • Don't count your chickens before they are hatched.
  • The early bird catches the worm.
  • History repeats itself.
  • A miss is as good as a mile.
  • The more you get, the more you want.
  • Many are called but few are chosen.
  • Still waters run deep.
  • The tree is known by its fruit.

Advanced

Advanced level sayings can explore the full gambit of archaic terms and meanings which demand detailed discussions of cultural understanding and shading.

  • It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
  • The company makes the feast.
  • Discretion is the better part of valor.
  • A fool and his money are soon parted.
  • All that glitters is not gold.
  • He who pays the piper calls the tune.
  • From the sublime to the ridiculous is only a step.
  • The opera isn't over till the fat lady sings.
  • United we stand, divided we fall.
  • Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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