Online Tool #2: The English Preposition Tutor

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Welcome to the very first study to apply cognitive linguistic theory to a computer-based tutor program - meaning it uses conceptual images (image schemas) to teach students to map meaning from a literal (spatial) preposition to its nonliteral (nonspatial) senses.

Here is a spatial image of the preposition OVER:

Here is an image of a nonspatial (figurative) use of OVER:

Apart from the fact that this program has fantastic visuals, it also uses what is termed the "competition model": Every question invites the learner to choose between two competing prepositions. This mimics what is thought to happen in the brain - that during language production the mind is actively choosing between competing words. Learned cues, which are strengthened over time, aid in choosing the correct term.

The example that Wong et al. (2018) give is the choice between "The boy threw a ball at his dog" vs. "The boy threw a ball to his dog." The preposition "at" indicates "aim" or "target." The preposition "to" indicates "direction" or "towards" - there is a giving/receiving relationship between the subject and the object. So the learners has to look for cues - is the dog trying to catch the ball? (cue: receive = to) Or is the dog being attacked by the ball? (cue: target = at)

This is an example from The English Preposition Tutor:

Once the learner chooses the landmark and trajector, images appear at the bottom of the page:

Notice that the program first reminds students to consider which is the trajector and which is the landmark. But this is not marked correct or incorrect - it's simply to remind the student of the process used in interpreting cues. It then provides schemas for reference. Here over is depicted as a moving ball over an abstract wall. Towards is depicted by a ball directed towards an abstract wall.

Once the learner chooses what they think is the best preposition, they are rewarded with immediate feedback, whether they answered correctly or incorrectly, and allowed as much time as needed to review the information.

I love how this program takes an enormous amount of research and presents it in a very simple and clear way so that students can absorb the information. Instead of being confronted with 16 different polysemes or meanings of the word "over," they choose between just two competing prepositions, and are provided with cues to scaffold them to the correct answer.

Just fyi the research study came to the following conclusions:

  • polyseme contrast (comparing two sentences with different prepositions) is effective in teaching prepositions. All of the study groups improved through this method, with only an hour spent using the computer program.

  • explicit instruction is really important in teaching such complex form-function mappings. In other words, don't expect students to pick this up on their own. These patterns, normally picked up by native speakers over many years of exposure, need to be taught simply and clearly to expedite learning and provide what is called "procedural control" to non-native speakers

  • students tend to do better with the literal (spatial) prepositions than the figurative (nonspatial) ones - for obvious reasons.

  • although all of the learners improved relatively equally on a basic cloze test, the real difference was seen in a more difficult "translation" test. Here, the "schematic diagram feedback" or conceptual imagery support allowed students to not just interpret, but produce figurative (nonspatial) language

  • This study joins a growing body of research indicating that the cognitive linguistic approach makes a difference in interpreting novel language production because it provides for clearer mental organization of concepts

SO.....I know this program is not fully developed - the current program teaches only the prepositions at, in, and over, and is just a demo version - but it is currently free and open for use at:

Look for English Preposition Tutor under Basic Skills Tutors.


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