Proverbs: An Introduction
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Out of the frying pan and into the fire! A stitch in time saves nine! Look before you leap! Traditional proverbs like these, meant to convey cultural knowledge and wisdom, are often closely tied to a culture's values and everyday experience, and their meanings are not always readily apparent to us today. In this lesson, students learn about proverbs: how they work, how they differ from clichés, how to interpret them, and how they can be culturally and personally significant. They begin by talking about proverbs that they already know and the differences between proverbs and clichés. Next, they interview family and friends to find proverbs that were not discussed in class. Then they try to figure out the meaning of these proverbs and talk about why they think some of the proverbs were difficult to understand. Finally, students create a new definition of proverbs based on what they've learned.
From Theory to Practice
Cruz and Duff argue that working with proverbs in the classroom can improve students' learning experiences, their language skills, and their understanding of themselves and the world. Among several advantages they mention, they maintain that working with proverbs "acknowledges the learner as an expert...(and) lightheartedly and often humorously exposes common beliefs and traditions among a diverse set of learners," "encourages respect for oneself, for each other, and for shared values of the community," "provides learners with the opportunity for insight," "creates the transition from home culture to school culture," and "enriches thinking and writing skills." This lesson taps into those benefits by introducing students to proverbs.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
- learn about proverbs, how they work, and their cultural significance.
- learn the difference between proverbs and clichés.
- share, study, and interpret proverbs.
- find a proverb that rings true for them and explain its significance.
- Using the Proverb Definitions handout, explain what proverbs are and provide a few examples. Discuss the difference between proverbs and clichés.
- Ask the students to write down some proverbs they know and then ask them to share some of them. If necessary or if you wish, you can use the Common Proverbs handout to help class discussion get started.
- Ask them where they've learned proverbs, where they hear proverbs used, and why they think proverbs can be important to people.
- Distribute the family Proverb Handout and ask students to interview their family and friends for additional proverbs. Encourage them to try to find proverbs that haven't been mentioned in class.
- Go back around the room and have each student read out one of their proverbs again, and ask the class to work out the meaning of each.
- Discuss the collection of proverbs the class has created. Are there common proverbs, proverbs that much of the class knows? If so, what makes them common? Are there proverbs that only one or two students know? If so, can the class figure out what makes that proverb less well known. (As proverbs contain cultural knowledge and cultural values, commonality will be dependent upon the cultural make-up of the class. The proverbs your students will know will be largely dependent upon their home cultures.)
- Ask the students if there were any proverbs which they found to be difficult to interpret. If there were, discuss why they think those proverbs were difficult.
- Ask the class to create a new definition of proverbs based upon what they've learned so far.
- This lesson can be followed up with the ReadWriteThink lessons Proverbs: At Home and Around the World and Proverbs: Contemporary Proverbs.
- Exploring Personal Proverbs: Ask the students to use Websites llisted in the Resources section to look for proverbs they like, proverbs that resonate with them. Have each student choose one of those proverbs and write an essay about an occasion in which that proverb rang true or, alternatively, write a fable which illustrates the proverb.
- Proverbs in Literature: Connect the study of proverbs to literary works that rely upon or foreground proverbs. Proverbs are common elements in fables and fairy tales. Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Amy Tan are three authors that make extensive use of proverbs. Some specific works that make extensive use of proverbs include Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya, House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and the Bible.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Observe the students as they present and discuss their proverbs. Are they interested and engaged with the discussion? Do their comments demonstrate a growing understanding of the material?
- Collect the family Proverb Handouts and check for completeness. Has the student gathered proverbs and explained their significance?