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How to Teach the Language of Prohibition

Presentation and practice ideas for adults and young learners studying “You can’t…”, “… isn’t allowed”, etc.

Despite its scary sounding name, the language of prohibition can start with something as easy as “You can’t…” or “No…ing”, and is easy to present and useful in classroom instructions even with low-level young learners.

Presenting the language of prohibition

Suitable language, in approximate order of when I would present it, includes:

  • You can’t… (here).
  • Don’t… (here).
  • No… (ing) (here).
  • You mustn’t…
  • You aren’t allowed to…
  • ….is prohibited.
  • … is banned.
  • … without permission.
  • Never (ever)…
  • You aren’t supposed to…
  • … under any circumstances.
  • There’s a rule against…
  • … has been banned.
  • … used to be allowed, but…
  • … isn’t permitted.
  • Whatever you do, don’t…
  • You are prohibited from…
  • No unauthorised…
  • This isn’t the right place for…
  • Don’t you dare…
  • Don’t even think about…
  • Under no circumstances are you to…
  • … is not the kind of thing which is allowed here.
  • You would need special permission to… here
  • (As a rule) we don’t allow… here
  • You don’t have permission to…
  • Any… (here) will lead to…
  • The punishment for… is…
  • … is restricted to…

You might also want to cover past forms like “You couldn’t…” and “You weren’t allowed to…”, and most communicative situations that bring up this language also tend to include asking for permission (“Is it okay to…?”) and/or the language of obligation (“You are obliged to provide two references”, “You must complete all five pages”, etc).

The most common way of presenting this language is with signs with a red line or cross on them meaning “No smoking” and “You can’t take pushchairs onto the escalator”. Given how universal these signs have become in workplaces and highways, this works with all but the youngest learners (something that unfortunately can’t be said of signs that are supposed to show positive obligation such as “You must wear a seatbelt”). Other possibilities include making a cross with your fingers, hands or arms (something that is a common gesture in some countries), shaking your head, tuttutting, or waving a finger from side to side.

Practice activities for the language of prohibition

Draw the prohibitions

Signs showing things that are banned can also be used to practise this language, for example by getting them to draw a sign for a particular sentence that they have been given until the people watching guess the sentence (something I call Prohibitions Pictionary). They could also compete to create the best signs to show something that is difficult to represent with pictures, such as “No chewing gum” and “Don’t tease your classmates”.

Decide on the prohibitions

Drawing can also be used as the last stage of this activity, in which students decide on the rules for a place such as a school, park or theme park. They could also design their own museum etc and then add signs to it to represent whatever rules their group decides on.

Find out the prohibitions

One student is given a strange prohibition like “You aren’t allowed to turn your back on the king” or “You can’t drive faster than walking pace” and the other people listen to hints and/ or ask questions until they guess what the rule is. This can also be set up as a kind of roleplay, e.g. where half the class are parents asking head teachers about the school rules, language students asking about a host family, or recruits asking HR departments about the company rules. The person who is answering has to respond to all questions honestly but doesn’t need to mention any strange rules that they aren’t asked about. The people who were asking the questions have to choose one of the places on offer and then are asked if they change their minds when told about any rules that they hadn’t heard about during the questioning stage.

Prohibit everything

In this roleplay task students are given a situation (e.g. in an airport or arriving at a host family’s house) in which one person must try to naturally mention as many prohibitions as possible, explaining the reasons for any that their partner questions. If you want to score it, students get one point for each prohibition they mention naturally, unless they can’t explain it when asked.

Why prohibit that?

Students try to guess why things have been prohibited, e.g. in particular places or at particular times, and then read or listen and check. They can then discuss whether those are good reasons or not.

More prohibited

Students rank prohibitions, e.g. by how important or how silly they are.

Prohibitions bluff

Students try to work out which prohibitions are true from a list of silly laws, laws in particular places such as private schools, old laws which have never been taken off the law books, laws particular to one country, etc. They can also make up their own imaginary prohibitions and work out which ones other groups made up and which ones are true.

Guess from the prohibitions

Students guess a country, type of premises, activity (e.g. sport) etc from a list of rules that are true in that situation.

A class contract

Students work together to draw up rules for this English class that they all agree on and agree to keep to.

Spot rules being broken

Students watch a video with lots of naughtiness (e.g. Dennis the Menace) and should shout “Stop” when they see a rule being broken and then describe it with some of the language above, e.g. “He mustn’t throw that there”.

Allowed everywhere

One student tries to say something that is allowed everywhere and their classmates try to think of circumstances under which it is prohibited, e.g. “Actually, that is banned on army bases”.

Freer speaking activities for the language of prohibition

Many of the topics mentioned above can be set up for discussion without pushing the language of prohibition, e.g. in a task-based approach. Suitable topics include choosing schools, improving behaviour in a school, getting rid of slacking in a company, cutting down on white collar crime or tax evasion, being a host family, bringing up children or teenagers, dealing with a country’s drug problem, and prison reform.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | July 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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