How to teach prepositions of time
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom games and activities for time expressions with at, in, on, no preposition etc
Students’ hatred of prepositions is understandable when you think that it is classified as grammar but actually has the almost infinite possibilities of a vocabulary point, especially when it comes to phrasal verbs and dependent prepositions. However, with prepositions of time there are actually simple rules and comparatively few options, and it is actually one of the simpler and more fun points to teach, learn and practise.
This article concentrates mainly on the basic prepositions of time “at”, “on”, “in” and “no preposition” that can be used to talk about all three of the present, the past and the future, but most of the activities would also work with other past prepositions of time like “…ago” and future ones like “within…” There are also three specific articles on this site on past, present and future time expressions.
What students need to know about prepositions of time
The rules for the most basic prepositions of time are:
- “at” for points in time (“at seven o’clock”, “at the end of this week”, etc)
- “on” for days and dates (because they are the same thing, as in “on Xmas Day”, “on 25 December” and “on Sunday 25 December”)
- “in” for some time within longer periods such as months, seasons, years, decades and centuries (“in January”, “in the early 1980s”, “in the middle on June”, etc)
- no preposition with expressions with or meaning “this”, “next” and “last” (“last week”, “yesterday”, etc) and similar expressions for times just before and after that (“the day after tomorrow”, “the week after next”, etc)
The “point in time” and “somewhere within a larger time” explanations for “at” and “in” correspond to “a point in space” for “at” and “within a larger space” for “in” meanings of the same prepositions when they are used as prepositions of position. For example, we say “I was born in London” because it means somewhere inside that city, in a very similar way to “I was born in 1977” meaning somewhere within that year. And we say “Meet you at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road” because it is a point in space, similar to the point in time of “At seven minutes past eleven”.
Somewhat confusingly, “at” is also used for a somewhat miscellaneous bunch of expressions which are longer than one day but less than a month such as “at Xmas” (meaning the whole Xmas period, not just Xmas Day) and “at half term”. “At the weekend” also follows this pattern, but in this case other prepositions of time are also possible! And “at night” seems completely illogical, in contrast to “in the morning/ afternoon/ evening”, which follows the “somewhere within a longer time” meaning of “in”.
Typical student problems with prepositions of time
As the basic rules are fairly simple to understand, students’ biggest problem with prepositions of time tends to be just getting used to saying the right prepositions quickly in fluent speech. However, confusions can remain with expressions which have the same meaning but different grammar such as “next Wednesday” and “on Wednesday (next week)” (but not “on next Wednesday” X). I tend to tell students to just use “on …day” where possible, both because they are less likely to make a grammar mistake with that form and because “next…” can cause confusion even between native speakers when it is Sunday and so there could be confusion over whether “next Wednesday” means in three days or in ten days.
The preposition of time that students have most problems getting their head round is the additional meaning of “at” for miscellaneous medium-length periods, with “at Xmas” having a very different meaning to “on Xmas Day”. However, this is also the one which is most likely to cause comprehension problems and so I tend to teach it at all but the lowest levels.
It can briefly be confusing for students that the same words take different prepositions depending on which goes first in the time expression, as in “on Monday afternoon” and “in the afternoon on Monday”. However, this follows a pattern of just matching the next word in the sentence that can also be seen in “an orange bed”/ “a bed which is orange” and “There is a bed and two pillows”/ “There are two pillows and a bed”. Only thinking about the next word also involves less thought when speaking, so should be easy enough to get used to.
How to present prepositions of time
The simplicity of (most of) the rules for this point means that it is perfect for the approach that I call URA (Use Recall Analyse), in which students communicate using some time expressions with the prepositions still attached, try to remember what prepositions they just used, try to make rules for how those prepositions are used, then use them again for communication. Most of the prepositions of time communicative activities below can be used with this format of lesson. Most of the ideas also work for other prepositions of time such as “since”, “within”, “by” and “until”.
How to practise prepositions of time
Prepositions of time drilling games
Prepositions of time stations
Students listen to time phrases and/ or gapped sentences and run and touch walls representing “at”, “on”, “no preposition” etc depending on which they think is suitable, perhaps shouting out the same phrase with the correct preposition in when they reach the right place. For less lively practice, including with older classes, you can get them to point at or throw things at walls or other targets representing the same prepositions. Alternatively, you could reduce the game to just two prepositions and get them to raise one of the two cards that they have been given.
Prepositions of time tennis
Students test each other on prepositions of time as they send a real or imaginary ball back and forth, with rules on who “serves” and how to score points perhaps taken from volleyball, badminton, tennis or table tennis. Possibilities on how they test each other include:
- Saying more and more examples with one preposition of time (or no preposition), with the first person to make a mistake, repeat something said before, give up or pause too long losing the point
- Saying an expression without the preposition for their partner to repeat back with the correct preposition
- Saying a preposition for their partner to repeat back in a suitable time expression
- Saying a whole time expression for their partner to reply to with different example of the same preposition in context
Preposition of time brainstorming games
As well as brainstorming back and forth in the top variation of the tennis game above, there are many other suitable speaking and writing games involving brainstorming suitable examples of each preposition. Oral practice includes brainstorming round a circle of students, perhaps clapping three times between each additional idea. However, I prefer to do it as a written race, with additional points for examples of the preposition being brainstormed that no one else had thought of. For additional practice they can do it on paper and then pass it to another group to check, or for additional excitement they can do it on the board with teams lining up and writing only one example before they pass the pen to the person behind them and moving to the back of the line.
Prepositions of time pelmanism and snap
Make a pack of cards with around 40 cards with prepositions of time missing such as “___ Thursday” and “___ midday”. To play pelmanism (also known as “pairs” and “the memory game”), students spread the cards face down across the table and take turns trying to find pairs of cards which have the same preposition missing. The faster game Snap can also be played with exactly the same cards. Students deal out the cards but aren’t allowed to look at them. Instead, they take turns quickly turning them over and placing them one by one on one of two packs on the table. Whenever the two top cards have the same preposition of time missing, they race to shout “Snap” as quickly as possible and get all the cards that have been turned over so far if they are correct. If they shout “Snap” when the two cards actually take different prepositions of time, they have to pay a penalty such as giving two cards to the other player(s) or all the face up cards being taken by the other player(s). The person who has most cards at the end of the game is the winner.
Communicative practice for prepositions of time
Prepositions of time hangman
One student writes a true sentence with a preposition of time that they have been given (on a card or worksheet) such as “I have breakfast at six forty five on Sundays”, without showing the sentence to their partner(s). Instead, the write the sentence out with gaps for each letter, e.g. “_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _...”. The other students try to guess letters that go in the gaps, using clues like knowing what kind of time expression there must be because they have got the prepositions of time or vice versa to help them guess. This can be played with the traditional rules of hangman (making a picture line by line as they guess letters that aren’t there), but I tend to find it is enough just to write such letters up with a cross through them, and anyway with such long sentences there is little chance of completing a whole hangman before they have guessed every letter.
To make the game more challenging, you can do a different kind of hangman game in which each letter is guessed one by one in sequence (“I”, then “H”, then “A”, etc for the example sentence). If any letter is guessed wrongly the right letter is given and the person who wrote the sentence gets one point.
To add speaking practice to either variation, you could ask the person who wrote the sentence to give hints about what kind of sentence they wrote like “It’s about the morning” and “You probably do the same thing, but later”.
Prepositions of time things in common
Students try to make sentences that are true for both/ all the people in their group with prepositions of time such as “We both go the gym on Sundays” and “We never go the beach in (the) spring”. To make for more of a variety of prepositions, you could give them a worksheet with each prepositions only given two or three times to be crossed off when they are used, or they could take a card and try to find a suitable sentence about both/ all of them before they can take the next card.
Prepositions of time closer and closer guessing game
Students choose a past or future time that has some special meaning to them, preferably one with a precise point in time such as “At 11 a.m. on Monday 14 March 2021”. They give a hint such as “That is when I’m getting married” or “That is (exactly) when I will be 18”. Their partner tries to guess first the millennium, then the century, then the decade, then the year, then the month, etc until they get the exact point in time, with hints like “That’s right. How about the month?”, “Slightly later” and “A lot earlier”. If you want to score, you could give one point for each correct guess (at each level, starting with millennium!) and/ or one point for each wrong guess they get from their partner.
Prepositions of time sentence completion guessing game
Give students gapped sentences that include or need prepositions of time such as “I _______ on _______”, “_____________________ Friday” and “My mother is happiest _______________”. Students complete as many as they can with true information in about five minutes. Then they choose one of those sentences and read out just the part that they have added (e.g. “on Sunday afternoons” for the last example), not the part that was printed on the worksheet. Their partner then tries to guess which sentence they put that information into, thinking about the meaning, matching prepositions of time with time expressions, etc.
Prepositions of time answer me
A student takes a card with a preposition of time on it, thinks about a question they can ask their partner that will have that preposition of time in the answer (e.g. “What time do you…?” for “at” or “When did you last…?” for “ago”) and writes the time expression with that preposition that they think their partner’s answer will be (“at nine thirty” or “many years ago”) on the card. They ask the question that they thought of and can discard the card if it says the same as their partner’s answer. However, if their partner said something different (e.g. “At 9:25” when they wrote “At 9:30”), they have to keep asking different questions until they get exactly that answer.
Prepositions of time lining up game
Think of a few questions whose answers include different prepositions of such as “What time did you get up this morning?” and “When is your birthday?” Students ask each other the same question and use their answers to line up in order from the earliest to the latest. Note that you will need to be very strict about insisting on no L1, full questions and full sentences in their answers for this activity to produce many prepositions of time in their speaking.
Prepositions of time lying games
Students think of a past, present or future action and the time that it happened, happens or will happen. The time must have at least three parts such as year, month and day or day, a.m. or p.m. and time. They change one of those three things to be false, e.g. “I will next see my father at 7:35 on Monday next week” when the real information is “I will next see my father at 7:35 on Monday the week after next”. After asking for more details with questions like “Why won’t you see him before then?”, their partner guesses which part is not true and then maybe tries to guess the real time.
Prepositions of time projects
School schedules projects
Students design both the regular daily timetable and calendar of special events for the next twelve months for their class or school. After presenting their ideas to each other or reading posters that other groups have written, they can then vote on which schedule they like best (not being allowed to vote for their own).
Public holiday projects
Students decide together on a new public holiday, talking about what season, what month and then what day one would be most suitable. They then decide what events will happen in the morning, afternoon and evening of that day and then when.
Prepositions of time history projects
Teams of students choose three from a century, decade, year, month, day or moment in time in history that they think are both important and interesting (e.g. “the 1930s”, “2007” and the moment when Kennedy was shot). They present their ideas and/ or posters to other groups, then they vote on which other group’s they like best.
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