Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Food isn’t Just for Eating

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

If you’re like I was in the classroom, you’re always looking for fun ways to teach something about English that your students need to recognize, understand, and internalize if they’re to master the language one of these fine days. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching elementary school kids or adults; everybody wants to have fun while learning, just as we teachers want to have fun while teaching.

So let’s take a look at one of the most daunting items of English, the prepositions. “Oh, no! Not those!” you say with a shudder. “Anything but prepositions!” Yes, I know how confusing they can be and how exacting they can be.

Well, I’m here to tell you that there are indeed fun ways to introduce, demonstrate, and successfully teach English prepositions. The way I used to enjoy the most was teaching those little bugaboos with hands-on activities, one of which was preparing food. Sounds weird, eh? Well, not so weird. For the following lesson, the prepositions that I’m going to target are at, down, in, into, off, on top of, over, to, under, and up.

Picture this: Your students come into your room at the start of class and start taking their seats. While doing so, they notice a long table in the front of the room, and on that table they see two large salad bowls and platters full of some common veggies used to make a tossed salad: two small heads of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, celery stalks, mushrooms, and scallions (green onions). There are also small bowls of pitted olives, crumbled, crisp bacon, and crumbled feta cheese. There are a couple of bottles of salad dressings, a knife1 to cut up the veggies, a cutting board, and a salad fork and spoon to toss the goodies after they’ve been placed into one of the large bowls. Last but not least, there’s a stack of disposable salad bowls on the side. And make sure to have a roll of paper towels handy, too. Wow! I’m honestly getting hungry just writing this!

Begin your lesson by explaining to your students what prepositions are. Then you tell them they’re going to watch as you prepare a salad, and have them gather around the table.

Make sure to use only half of the veggies and toppings. You’ll see why later. Here’s a list of sentences that you can be saying as you describe what you’re doing while preparing the salad. Note that these sentences are deliberately kept short:

  • I’m going to cut up all the vegetables.
  • I cut the bottom off a head of lettuce.
  • I tear the lettuce leaves into small pieces and put them into the bowl.
  • I cut the cherry tomatoes in half.
  • I add them to the lettuce at the bottom of the bowl.
  • I cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise.
  • I cut the halves into thin slices and put them into the bowl.
  • I do the same thing with the mushrooms.
  • Then I slice the celery and scallions into thin pieces.
  • I put the mushrooms, celery, and scallions on top of the other veggies.
  • I cut up the olives and sprinkle them and some bacon over the veggies.
  • Now everything is in the bowl.
  • I mix up all the veggies. How?
  • I get under the veggies with my salad fork and spoon.
  • I bring them up and let them fall down. I keep doing this until all the veggies are mixed.
  • I sprinkle some feta cheese over the salad, and it’s ready to eat!
  • I dig my salad fork and spoon into the salad.
  • I pick up some salad and I place it into this small bowl.
  • I take the lid off2 a bottle of salad dressing.
  • I pour some dressing over my salad.

As you describe out loud each action you’re doing, ask a couple of students to repeat what you’ve just said. Then repeat the sentence yourself so that the group has heard the preposition used four times.

Now that you’ve made your salad, ask for a volunteer to prepare a duplicate salad. Have the student describe what he/she is doing each step of the way just as you did. Once again ask two other students to repeat what your “salad sous-chef” says to reinforce the prepositions. Once your student’s salad is done, invite the class to use the disposable bowls and help themselves to some salad and dressing.

After the class has placidly munched on their salads, review each step you went through to prepare the salad and write the sentences on the board for your students to copy into their notebooks so they can review the lesson on their own at a later time.

You’ll find that a lesson like this will be lots of fun and will be quite meaningful for your students because it’s applying language to a real-life activity. This kind of lesson will go a long way to having your students internalize these basic uses of the targeted prepositions, and you’ll be able to answer any questions they may have after the demonstration with extra visual reinforcement if necessary.

So try out this culinary creation or think of other dishes that can be prepared easily in class and that give you the opportunity to use prepositions just was we have with the salad. How much more fun can a lesson get? You’ll find that hands-on demonstrations are a great way to teach these little bugaboos we call prepositions.

1. In many schools these days it’s against policy to allow a metal-bladed knife in a classroom for security reasons. If your school has such a policy, I’m sure you’ll still be allowed to use a plastic knife from the school cafeteria. Most of these are still adequate for cutting up veggies.

2. There’s always been an argument about whether or not it’s grammatical to say off of, e.g., I take the lid off of a bottle of salad dressing. The fact is that if you’re a prescriptivist, you’re going to say that of is not correct after off, but if you’re a descriptivist, you’re going to point out how commonly off of is used, especially in American English, thereby making it grammatical. Even though I don’t particularly like saying off of, I suppose it’s acceptable because it’s used so frequently, the same way I absolutely hate hearing the reason why, but have come to accept it in others’ speech because it seems that just about everybody goes along with that outrageous redundancy.


Comment from Galina
February 11, 2012 at 9:07 am

Thank you for your lesson! Could you tell me why we use the word “potato” as an uncountable noun “There is much potato in this salad” and we use the word “tomato” in the plural form in the sentence “There are many tomatoes in the pizza”.
Best wishes, Galina.

Comment from Richard Firsten
February 11, 2012 at 11:37 am

Hello, Galina. I’m glad you liked my blog entry on teaching some prepositions. 🙂

As to your question, the noun “potato” can be countable when it’s the actual, edible tuber (I need three potatoes to make this recipe) and uncountable when it’s used as an abstraction when talking about a kind of food (Being diabetic, he can’t eat that dish because it contains potato).

The noun “tomato” works the same way. As an actual, edible fruit — and yes, scientifically speaking tomatoes are a fruit — we can say things like “I need two tomatoes for this recipe.” As an abstraction when talkiing about a kind of food, we can say things like “Have you ever eaten a white pizza? It’s a kind of pizza that has no tomato in it.”

I hope that clarifies these two nouns for you, Galina.

Comment from Galina
February 15, 2012 at 10:40 am

Thank you for your answer.The sentence “There are many tomatoes in the pizza” is right and the sentence “There is much tomato in the pizza” is right. In the first sentence we thought about how many tomatoes we took when we cooked it. And in the second one – “tomato” is an abstraction noun. Am I right?

Comment from Richard Firsten
February 15, 2012 at 11:58 am

I guess I wasn’t clear enough in my answer, Galina. You should say something like, “There’s a lot of tomato on this pizza,” although that seems quite odd since pizzas are normally made with tomato sauce, not tomatoes, per se. In any event, it would be used as the abstraction, which I gave you an example of in my original reply.

By the way, may I suggest that you visit the Azar Grammar Exchange (, become a member, and post any and all grammar and usage questions you may have in that forum. There are moderators who will very happy to answer your inquiries.

Comment from Galina
October 17, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Thank you very much!

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