Using Proverbs

Proverbs are an important part of our culture. I was surprised while I was working at the university that sometimes professors would come to me to ask about something that didn’t make sense to them. These were people with degrees in English literature, but a passing reference to “the early bird” or “snatching the brand out of the fire” could trouble them. Since then I have tried to use proverbs so that they would be familiar to my students.

When I was a legacy teacher, this meant a proverb of the day that students copied into a notebook. We would discuss its meaning and they were held accountable for them on quizzes.

Now that I use Comprehensible Input methods, I go about it differently.  I like to make a list of proverbs that I then divide into two parts.  I give one student the list with the beginning of the proverb. Then I mix up the endings and give that list to another student. They can work in pairs, trying to match the sentences that go together. With lower level classes I let them work a while on their own, and then we all work together to find the right phrases.

Doing the exercise involves establishing meaning for new words, but it also requires students to recognize which grammatical structures could go together. I found it very interesting that they were looking for verbs that matched the subjects, etc.  Through acquisition they were sufficiently aware of which structures were possible and which were not, without having had any explicite grammar training. There was a lot of built in repetition as they tried putting various pairs together. It was perhaps better to do it as a whole class activity because I was able to keep the discussion in English.

Teachers could do the matching exercise first, then use the proverbs as passwords. Upper levels could work with longer lists.

Here is an example of proverbs from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard Almanac. I’ve also used quotations from Mark Twain.


  1. A countryman between two lawyers …
  2. All would live long …
  3. An investment in knowledge ….
  4. Be slow in choosing a friend,
  5. Early to bed and early to rise…
    1.  but none would be old.
    2. … makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
    3. … always pays the best interest.
    4. ….. is like a fish between two cats.
    5. …. slower in changing.

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