A proverb or “saying” is a short sentence that people often say because it gives you advice or tells you something about life. People are exposed to proverbs frequently, e.g. through TV, podcasts/radio, social media, books, magazines, news, and even computer games.
Why it matters
The ability to understand unfamiliar proverbs is a key higher level language skill needed for success at school, work, and in life. Many proverbs express the shared values and beliefs of a society. Understanding proverbs is important for acquiring cultural literacy: the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture. It’s also important for oral language and reading comprehension in social, academic and work settings (Nippold, 2000; Hirsch, 1987).
Some children and others with developmental language disorders, language disorders associated with diagnoses like Autism Spectrum Disorder, some children with reading difficulties, and people learning English as a second or additional language have trouble understanding proverbs. This can lead to misunderstandings and affect academic, work and social participation.
Proverbs vary in their complexity
In general, proverbs are more difficult to understand than metaphors and similes and idioms (although that’s not always the case, e.g. with opaque idioms). Some proverbs are easier to understand than others:
- common or “high frequency” proverbs are usually better understood than rare proverbs; and
- some proverbs with concrete nouns (e.g. “fox”, “cup”) are easier to understand than proverbs containing abstract nouns (e.g. “gratitude”).
When do we learn how to understand proverbs?
Understanding proverbs is a higher level language skill that many kids start to acquire in their first years of school.
Teenagers (and adults) vary greatly in their ability to understand proverbs. People with stronger analogical reasoning and literacy skills typically outperform lower achieving peers. For typically developing children, substantial growth occurs from late childhood to late adolescence. The ability to understand some abstract proverbs – e.g. “Envy is destroyed by true friendship” – isn’t mastered until around the age of 18 (Nippold et al., 2000).
Lower and higher level language skills needed to understand proverbs
Proverb comprehension relies on both top-down and bottom-up processing (e.g. Burgess & Chiarello, 1996). It relies on both understanding each word used in the proverb (a bottom-up skill) as well as being able to understand the context in which it’s used to figure out its meaning (a top-down skill) (Nippold et al., 2000).
Learners, when confronted with an unfamiliar saying, must move back and forth between the proverb and its context for clues to meaning. For example, if a teenager awkwardly brings up an uncle’s business failure at a family event with the uncle in attendance, and the teenager’s dad tells a teenager to “Let sleeping dogs lie”, the teenager has to map the proverb to the situation and draw the inference that he (the teenager) should drop the topic.
In other words, people need both lower-level vocabulary and higher-level language processing skills (e.g. inferencing, analogical reasoning, and metaphorical mapping skills) to understand unfamiliar proverbs. As with other higher level language tasks, the ability to put proverbs into their context is really important.
A free resource to get started
It’s never too early to get started with proverbs.
In this free resource, we tackle 42 proverbs we think every school-aged child show know. We have selected most of our proverbs from the excellent Core Knowledge Foundation Language Arts Curriculum for kids in Kindergarten to Year 4. For each proverb, we provide a plain English explanation of what the proverb means (adapted in most cases from the wonderful Collins COBUILD Primary Leaner’s dictionary). We then provide a “mini-story” to present the proverb in context.
Access the proverb resource
The resource can be accessed as part of our free Introduction to Higher Level Language mini-course here.
Nippold, M.A., Allen, M.M., Kirsch, D. (2000). How adolescents comprehend unfamiliar proverbs: The role of top-down and bottom-up processes. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 43(3), 621-630.