Teaching Prepositions

Teaching prepositions to language-delayed kids is very important. Whereas most children unconsciously pick these words (up, down, over, under), language-delayed kids often struggle to get them right. Sometimes they can’t figure out the concepts in their head (cognition), sometimes they can’t figure them out because of the nuances of English language (receptive language), and sometimes they know the concepts but simply can’t retrieve them while they’re talking (expressive language). Whatever the issue, explicit lessons often help.

Let’s say your child knows “in” & “out” but mixes them up. Take a farm animal and a toy barn, and put the animal in it while you say, “In!” Then take the animal out while you say, “Out!” Go slowly and emphatically. Do this three times and then hand it to the child to see if he can do it. If he can’t do it, help him guide the animal with your hand on his hand, repeating the “in/out” script; do this until he gets it on his own or gets frustrated; come back to it later that day again. Once he can do it, switch to a different animal and repeat, first you then him. If he can do it after that point, you can complicate the script by adding, “Put the horse IN the barn. Now take him OUT.” But always emphasize the prepositions, not the other words. Don’t focus on the animal you choose or who is doing the in/out. Keep the object lesson as the focus.

And of course, celebrate when he does it right.

If your child gets the animal/barn script right but exhibits confusion during the day when you use In/Out, ask him to put the horse In/Out of the barn again. Then ask him to put the horse In/Out of something else, like the closet. Ask him to put the horse In/Out of something strange, even, like the refrigerator. Then go back to the place where he was confused about In/Out, and try again.

Depending on the problem involved and your child’s impairment level, you will definitely see success if you repeat this exercise. Once he has success, you can switch prepositions. Work with a new opposite pair, and when he masters that one, then add back in the In/Out or whatever you did first, and work with those four. Work with them until he can do 9 out of 10 trials, when you quiz all four. If he messes up or forgets, just guide his hand to the correct spot again.

Keep adding two prepositions at a time, always including the previously learned ones, once the new preposition set has been mastered.

You can use whatever other props you want. I just found an animal/barn easy. Try to pick something that you can keep going back to, with a variety of prepositions. A sock/box works very well too.

You can do this exercise with whatever prepositions you want, or verbs:

  • up/down
  • on/off
  • top/bottom
  • over/under
  • behind/in front of
  • above/below (beneath)
  • to/from, towards/away
  • put/get, or place/bring
  • leave/take
  • stop/go
  • come/stay
  • first/next/last (you need three animals for this)
  • one/all (you need at least four animals for this)

Start with easier pairs first, and ones that the child has at least heard of before moving on to brand new concepts.

And one last thing: sometimes a child has trouble generalizing prepositions from objects to themselves. For instance, they may understand putting a horse behind a barn or a sock behind behind a box, but they can’t follow your direction to look for their toy behind the couch. That is because seeing a ball “behind” is objective, but taking themselves “behind” is subjective (i.e. they can’t see themselves going behind, rather they have to sense or internally recognize that they are doing it with their own bodies). If this is the case, practice the preposition pair with both the animal/barn as well as with their own body: after putting the horse In/Out of the barn, ask your child to get In/Out of a closet. For sensory-impaired children, this is often a very difficult thing to learn because they don’t have good awareness of their bodies. But it will help you and them tremendously if you keep at it. It is also an important safety skill.


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