Coming across “like” as a preposition can often be a shock for students, especially if it comes after years of happily using the verb “like” in “Do you like cheese?” and “I like skiing”. However, the preposition “like” is incredibly useful in phrases such as “What was your hotel like?”, “It’s like Greece, but…” and “Do you feel like going for a coffee?” It should therefore definitely be studied sooner or later. This article gives tips on how to present and practise the preposition “like” in ways that make it both useful and manageable.
What students need to know about like as a preposition
The most common meaning of the preposition “like” is “similar to”, as in “I look like my father” and “It is like Marmite, but…” In these cases, it is the opposite of “unlike” in sentences such as “I look totally unlike my father”.
Questions with “like” such as “What is he like?” and “What does it smell like?” simply mean “Can you describe (the smell of/ appearance of/ texture of/ taste of)…?”, similar to “How is it?” and “How is the taste?”. Answers to such questions can have the same preposition (as in “It looks a bit like the Eiffel Tower”), but generally don’t need to (as in “It is really sour” and “He is rather good looking”). This makes questions such as “What was it like?” and statements like “It smells like old socks” basically two different language points that can be taught either separately or together.
As can be seen from the examples above, like as a preposition is most common with “be” and the verbs of senses “look”, “sound”, “taste”, “smell” and “feel”. However, it can be used with almost any verb in a similar way, as in “He’s panting like a dog” and “Don’t act like an idiot!” There are then common but seemingly unrelated uses in “seem like” and “feel like” in “Do you feel like coming out for a pint?” These uses have the same grammar as “look like”, “smell like”, etc, but don’t seem to share the “similar to” meaning.
As with all prepositions, “like” can be followed by a noun or pronoun (“It seems like a good idea” and “He looks just like me”) or the similar -ing form (“Do you feel like coming with us?”) It is also sometimes followed by a clause, as in “It looks like he is coming”. However, this would make “like” more of a conjunction than a preposition, and many people prefer “as if” or “as though” in this case.
We can also look at what words collocate with “like”, most commonly modifiers which show how similar or not the things are. These include:
- looks just like/ smells exactly like
- really feels like/ is a lot like
- seems quite a lot like
- is somewhat like
- tastes a little like/ sounds a bit like/ doesn’t perform much like/ doesn’t really act like
- really doesn’t work like
- speaks nothing like/ is totally unlike
There are also many idioms, titles of art works such as movies and songs, and quotations which include like as a preposition, such as “Like herding cats” and “Like a Bat Out of Hell”.
Typical student problems with like as a preposition
Probably the most common issue with producing like as a preposition is the years of like as a verb practice that has preceded it. This means that in oral practice even students who fully understand the differences between “I like…” and “I’m like…” might come up with confusions such as “What does it like?” for “What is it like?”, “It likes brandy but rougher” for “It’s like brandy but rougher”.
Another thing that seems to happen automatically even in students who have been doing written practice perfectly is to repeat “like” unnecessarily in answers to like as a preposition questions, as in “What was your weekend like?” “It was like really lovely” X. This could also be because they are used to exchanges in the pattern “What kind of sweets do you like?” “I like really sweet ones such as Indian sweets” from when they were studying like as a verb.
Given the confusions caused by copying the use as a verb, I would definitely not do likes and dislikes just before like as a preposition. However, some practice contrasting the negatives, questions and typical responses with both the verb and preposition may be useful later on, and there is a whole article on contrasting like and be like on this site.
How to present like as a preposition
Because of what I’ve said above about like as a preposition in questions and statements, my usual approach to introducing it is to start with “What is/ are… like?” (and maybe variations like “What was… like?”) whenever it is useful. At this point, students simply need to know that the question means “Can you describe…?”, without any further language presentation being necessary. Then, much later, around Intermediate level, I tend to have a lesson on verbs of senses such as “look like”, at which point students can contrast like as a preposition in the statements that they are studying now and in the questions which they have been asking and answering for a while. Statements with “be like” could be done as part of or straight after that. Students should then not panic when they come across other examples with the “similar to” meaning such as “Walk Like an Egyptian” and other examples which don’t follow that meaning such as “I feel like taking a sabbatical”.
“What is… like?” should come up naturally when you are planning your normal lessons, for example as a natural follow-up question when students are listening to their partners giving extended speaking mini-presentations, or as part of small talk.
Natural situations for “look like”, “smell like”, “taste like”, “feel like”, “sound like” and maybe “be like” include the incredibly useful skills of describing things that are unique to their countries/ cultures and talking around words that they don’t know in English (“I’m looking for a tool that looks like a pig’s tail so I can open my wine”). After matching what someone is saying to pictures, students can analyse the language for what goes before and after those examples of “like”, and maybe how it is different from the verb “like”. They can then do a similar activity such as describing pictures of things they really don’t or pretend that they don’t know the name for.
If you want to also include “feel like” and “seem like” in the same presentation, you could use a conversation which starts with “It seems like we’ve finished the project. Do you feel like coming to a bierkeller to celebrate?” “What’s a bierkeller?” “It’s like… but…” “What’s the food like?”
It’s more difficult to also include other forms with like as a preposition such as “Like a bear with a sore head” and “Run like the wind”. However, you could base the presentation around such idioms by getting students to match ones with obvious meanings to their definitions. You can then see how many of the idioms they can remember, before or after looking at how “like” is used in them. If you include some idioms which need definitions of words in them such as “Kick like a mule”, you could also put “like” in their definitions (“It’s like a horse but…”) for students to analyse and maybe use in a similar way.
Something similar can also be done with titles of movies, songs and/ or books such as There’s No Business Like Showbusiness, with students matching the titles to summaries of the subjects/ plots, analysing how “like” is used in them all, then seeing if they can make the same or similar titles with one of the practice activities below. If you choose titles that they already know and/ or idioms whose meanings are quite obvious, it may also be possible to start with that kind of activity before students analyse the language that they have just been working on, in a kind of TTT approach.
How to practise like as a preposition
If you only want to focus on like with verbs of senses and/ or “be”, there are other articles on this site on teaching verbs of senses, teaching like and be like, and teaching like with be and look. In this article I have therefore concentrated on practice activities that can include other forms such as “feel like” for desires and invitations, and idioms with “like”.
Like as a preposition roleplays
The situation above starting with “It seems like we’ve finished… Do you feel like…?” can also be something that students can roleplay. To help with that, you could give them a list of places that some people might not be familiar with such as “roastery” and ask them to pretend they don’t know what they are being invited to if they actually do. This could then be a lead in to the useful and interesting topic of explaining things from your own country to people from elsewhere.
Like as a preposition design presentations
Students design superheroes, genetically modified animals, products etc, and explain their abilities/ functions, appearance, and similarities to other things with sentences like “It can suck like a jet engine” and “It looks like an ordinary chicken, but…” They present their ideas and take questions like “What does it look like?”, then maybe vote on the best design. Students will probably need example sentences and/ or useful sentence stems to help with this.
Like as a preposition guessing game
I’ve only been able to make this work with the topic of animals, but it might be possible for other things such as tools or kitchen appliances. Prepare a worksheet where each thing has hints with different uses of “like” such as “According to the English idiom, messy eaters eat like this”, “It’s tail looks like a corkscrew” and maybe “People like eating its meat”. Students give hints like those until their partner guesses what they are talking about, with only one guess allowed per hint.
Like as a preposition trivia quizzes
This also works really well with the topic of animals, but might also work for other objects. Give students questions and correct answers with like such as “What animal does Nelly Furtado sing that she is like?” “She sang that she is like a bird”, “In English, what kind of chicken is someone who acts without a plan like?” “They are like a headless chicken”, and “What does a perfume made from beaver products smell like?” “It smells like vanilla”. Students make up two or three wrong answers for each question, mix them with the right answers, then test their partners with their questions and multiple-choice options.
Like as a preposition word order activities
Many idioms, names of books, etc with “like” are short enough that students should be able to put them back into order if they are mixed up, as in “a falling like log off” and “Dancing Feel Like Make Me You”.
With longer example sentences, quotations, proverbs, etc, you could take “like” out and ask students to put it back in the correct place (without a gap to help, as in “With friends that who needs enemies”). To stop students doing this automatically without thinking about the meaning, you’ll need to include some variety such as some idioms with like after a verb, some with like at the start, and maybe some with the verb “like”.
Idioms with like pairwork matching
Make a list of around 15 to 20 similar idioms with like, e.g. just ones starting with “Like a…” such as “Like a dog with two tails”. Split the idioms after the first noun (“Like a puppet” + “on a string”) and put one half on a Student A worksheet and the other half on a Student B worksheet for students to match up without showing their worksheets to each other.
To add more grammar to this activity, it is also possible (although more difficult) to mix in idioms where like is used differently such as “If you don’t like, lump it” and “I miss you like crazy”.
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