Teaching Proverbs in TEFL


Proverbs are simple sayings which are used to show common sense and popular wisdom. They are regarded generally as informal rather than formal language. Thus they’re mostly used in common everyday spoken language.

There are hundreds and hundreds of proverbs in modern English‏‎ (and of course in other languages) but a few common examples include:

An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.

Honesty is the best policy.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Better late than never.

Each of these can be seen as a summing up of common sense and everyday knowledge and they are often used didactically. For example, a parent might well say to a child that honesty is the best policy and encourage the child to tell the truth in all matters.

Teaching Proverbs in the TEFL Classroom

It is best to teach proverbs as they arise in the lesson rather than present your class with a list of many proverbs to learn. The reason is, of course, that there are just so many proverbs and taking them out of context does not help in learning.

Fortunately proverbs (unlike phrasal verbs‏‎, for example) can often be examined and have their meaning deduced. It may take a little prompting by the teacher, but your students should be able to work out the meaning of many of them. One other useful aspect of proverbs is that because they contain so-called “universal wisdom” the students’ mother tongue‏‎ may well have a very similar proverb. In Italian, for example, you have a caval donato non si guarda in bocca which is the same as don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

So encourage your students to examine the proverb and try to reveal the underlying wisdom it contains. Suppose you come across this in a lesson:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Encourage your students to work out what it means and what it is trying to say. The language of proverbs is usually quite simple and it should not take much for the class to paraphrase it thus:

You can encourage someone a great deal but you can’t force them to do something if they don’t want to.

Perhaps then your students can come up with their own versions?

You can put a student in class but you can’t make them study.

You can send someone boxes of chocolate but you can’t force them to go out with you.

And so on.

Proverbs & Wisdom

Proverbs are used to give out words of wisdom. However, because they have been around for so long people generally use them and accept them without thinking. Sometimes the wisdom they give out can be contradicted.

English contains many pairs of contradictory proverbs, amongst which are:

Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

You’re never too old to learn.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Clothes make the man.

You can use these to raise discussion in your class. Are both proverbs correct? If so, when is one right and the other wrong?

Another useful exercise in class, especially with older students with good English, is to question proverbs. There is a possibility that proverbs reflect cultural values which may not necessarily apply where you are teaching, or perhaps show a blatant disregard for some aspect of life.

Take, for example, this proverb:

The early bird catches the worm.

This is used to encourage people to get up early, start work immediately and get on with the task. It is a good example of the kind of proverb that one could imagine Victorian factory owners using!

However, there is another side to it. If the worm gets up early it will be eaten; it is thus better for the worm to get up late and live a long and healthy life!

Proverbs and Maxims and…

There is no fixed definition of what a proverb is. In English we use all of these to talk about similar things:

proverb – a saying with some universal truth included
maxim – a proverb which provides a guide for how to live your life
saw – an old saying, commonly used and repeated
saying – all the above!

As you can see, the definitions of these words overlap a great deal.

Useful Links

50 Important Proverbs – a simple list of common proverbs

English Proverbs – from Wikiquote

Proverbs from Different Languages – from Wikiquote

Proverb Match‏‎ – an activity to practice proverbs in the classroom

A long list of proverbs‏‎ – a simple list of common proverbs

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