Using Proverbs in a Writing Class

When I was little, I used to have a book with a collection of Russian proverbs and sayings.  I remember being absolutely fascinated by the depth of knowledge and wisdom that I discovered on the pages of that book.  Those proverbs opened a door for me to a better understanding of the Russian culture as well as important norms, morals, and life values.  Indeed, I can say they helped me become a more mature and intelligent human being.

Speaking about second language learners: Proverbs can—like in my own experience—help them learn a great deal about the target culture and the norms and values that people in that culture respect and treasure.  A writing class  is a great venue for incorporating proverbs into teaching.  With the effective use of proverbs, a teacher can both help students develop their writing skills and deepen their cultural knowledge.  In other words, the use of proverbs kills two birds with one stone!

I want to share some activities that teachers can do in the writing classroom.  Hopefully, they can inspire you to further ideas.

Using Proverbs as In-Class Journal Prompts

When I was teaching a writing class in an intensive English program, part of my weekly routine was having students write, twice a week, a 10-minute in-class journal.  The prompts for these activities were prepared in advance, and were created to help students develop their creativity and analytical thinking.  Proverbs seem to make excellent prompts for in-class journals.  I suggest, however, that you select the proverbs with transparent rather than metaphorical meanings.  Before the actual writing activity, you can also briefly explain the meaning of the proverb to help students move their thoughts in the right direction.

Here are some proverbs that you can use as journal prompts:

  • A friend in need is a friend indeed.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Bad news travels fast.
  • Better late than never.
  • Better safe than sorry.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Never too old to learn.
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • Practice what you preach.
  • Two heads are better than one.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Writing a Story That Illustrates a Proverb

For this activity, you need to select several proverbs with metaphorical meanings.  After you explain the meanings of those proverbs and briefly discuss them with the students, ask them to pick one proverb and write a short story or a passage that would illustrate the meaning of the proverb they picked.  Then each student will read their story and the rest of the class will try to guess the proverb.

Here are some proverbs that you can use for this activity:

  • A watched pot never boils.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  • Easy come, easy go.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.
  • Give someone an inch, he/she will take a mile.
  • Look before you leap.
  • Still waters run deep. 
  • The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
  • The early bird gets the worm.
  • There are plenty of other fish in the sea.
  • There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
  • To kill two birds with one stone.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  • We will cross that bridge when we get to it.
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • When it rains, it pours.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Teaching About the Rhetorical Situation

The concept of rhetorical situation is not easy to grasp for second language learners.  You can help students gain a better understanding of purpose, audience, and stance by implementing a simple writing activity with the use of proverbs.  For this activity, you should choose one proverb and ask the students to write a story or a short passage illustrating the meaning of the proverb (just like in the activity described above).  Then each student will read his or her piece and the rest of the class will analyze it in terms of its rhetorical situation.  The following questions will help the students analyze the rhetorical situation:

  • What is the writer’s purpose?
  • What is the writer’s stance in this piece?  
  • Who is the audience? 
  • What is the basic impression that the author wants to convey? 
  • What do you think the writer wants the audience to do based on this passage? 

To further help students with the concept of rhetorical situation, you can also discuss the differences between the students’ passages.  The students will be able to see that although they all wrote about the same proverb, their passages/stories are quite different because of the differences in their rhetorical situations.

Practicing Argumentative Skills

Since many proverbs contain arguable points (e.g., Don’t judge a book by its cover; Honesty is the best policy; Better late than never), they can also be used to help students develop their argumentative skills.  You can simply ask the students to express their agreement or disagreement with the meaning of the selected proverb and provide convincing pieces of evidence to defend their position.

There are certainly many other stimulating and interactive activities that writing teachers can do to help their students develop their writing skills and learn interesting and useful facts about the target culture.  Please feel free to share your ideas with us!

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is originally from Russia and has been in the United States for 7 years pursuing her education, most recently her doctorate in second language studies at Purdue University. Elena received her master's in TESOL from Brigham Young University and has taught various ESL classes both in academic and community settings. Currently, she is an instructor of first-year composition courses in the English department at Purdue University.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Using Proverbs in a Writing Class

  1. Adrian Wurr says:

    I remember a poster in the school where I first taught ESL that was called “Proverbidoms” and was a montage of pictures illustrating popular proverbs. It was an excellent conversation starter with students and supports Elena’s and Bek’s comments on the metaphorical (and thus universal, according to Lakoff) nature of proverbs.

  2. Moira Pratarelli says:

    In various classes, situations that allow the use of proverbs may arise, and I’ve discovered that many cultures have similar proverbs, so the ideas behind these expressions will often be familiar to our students. My students seem to be happy to find out that these similarities exist, and we can usually come up with a few more on the spot.

    • Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

      True! It’s an excellent example to teach students that despite many differences in cultures, people around the world share the same values.

  3. I’m really sure that proverbs are a source of wisdom and knowledge, so as English teachers, we may use them in the classroom. I’m grateful with Elena Shvidko for sharing this great pedagogical idea.

  4. Nancy Yi-Cline says:

    My students are required to write journals weekly and I give proverb prompts fairly frequently. Students often come up with great stories that reflect their cultural background. I definitely recommend incorporating proverbs in your lessons, whether for writing or speaking practice. You will be surprised what ESL students can bring to class!

    • Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

      This is one of my favorite parts of teaching–learning about students’ cultural backgrounds and values of their countries. Thank you for your comment, Nancy!

  5. Bek says:

    A nice piece. It is very informative and I like the part that promotes fluency writing (10-minute-in-class journal activity). This is a great way to start a writing class. I will share this article with my colleagues at an IEP.

    One quick question. Don’t you think that almost all the proverbs are metaphoric in nature? They are part of the formulaic language. Yes, some are transparent while others non-transparent.

    • Elena Shvidko Elena Shvidko says:

      Thank you for your comment, Bek! I am glad you found these ideas helpful. And yes, I do agree that the majority of proverbs are metaphoric in nature. Some exceptions may be “Never too old to learn”, “Honesty is the best policy”…

  6. Excellent, I am sure it would help me a lot in my courses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>