A Step-By-Step Way to Teach Prepositions in Speech Therapy

Have you ever thought about how necessary and important prepositions are to survive in society?

Although I regularly target them during my sessions with young children, I don’t think I’ve truly appreciated just how important they are in daily life. 

Recently, I read a research article titled, Using Direct Instruction: Teaching Preposition Use to Students with Intellectual Disability. The authors referred to another article that stated, “describing where objects are and being able to locate them based on another’s description are some of the most fundamental survival skills for individuals.” 

Enter prepositions – specifically locative prepositions. These are keywords that allow people to follow directions and locate items.

What are Locative Prepositions?

Locative prepositions are words that tell us the location of an object in relation to a reference point or landmark.

 For instance, the ball (the object) is in (locative preposition) the basket (reference point).

Children’s ability to understand locative prepositions is extremely important to their overall understanding of spoken language. Understanding prepositional use paves the way for correct usage.

When do children begin using locative prepositions?

According to a study by Internicola and Weist (2003), simple locative prepositions (e.g. in, on, under) are used correctly in children as early as 18 months and as late as 31 months. More complex locative prepositions (e.g. across and around) emerge as early as 29 months and as late as 57 months. The children in this study acquired these prepositions incidentally, meaning that they did not need explicit instruction to acquire these language skills.

Up, down, in, and on are some common early emerging first words and are used in many early word combinations.

Interestingly, research has found that young children usually use in, on, and over as prepositions to mark location while up, down, and off are used more like verbs to mark movements or motion. For instance, in the sentence “Take off your socks,” take is the verb and off is the verb particle. The word off is acting NOT like a preposition but as a grammatical unit of the verb (Watkins and Rice, 1991). For readers who are interested in learning more, this is carefully explained in My Toddler’s First Words.

Humans are uniquely hardwired for language, meaning the different parts of our brain enable us to understand and use speech and language.

Conversations and interactions are often enough for some children to acquire various expressive and receptive language skills. However, incidental learning is not enough for children with language delays or disorders or those who have intellectual disabilities; explicit instruction is required. 

What is Explicit Instruction?

Explicit instruction is teaching in a way that is direct and structured. The students are shown what and how to do something multiple times with many chances to practice and feedback is ample. However, the instruction is relatively short and engaging so students want to pay attention.

How Can We Explicitly Teach Prepositions?

We can teach prepositions to children with language delays or impairments in a direct way using a scripted lesson.

The following step-by-step procedure has been adapted from the research results of Hicks et al., 2015.

Start with familiar objects and props

  • For instance, the object can be a ball and the prop can be a box. Keep the objects constant for the duration of the instructional session

Provide multiple models

  • First model incorrect examples of the targeted preposition.
    • If teaching the preposition “in” put the ball outside of the box and say, “This is not in the box”. Move the ball an inch or two closer to the box but still DO NOT place the ball in the box. Once again say, “This is NOT IN the box.”
  • Next, show the correct model a few times. For instance, place the ball in the box but move the location of the ball in the box. Multiple examples are shown to help the child realize that the preposition can cover a wide range of possibilities.

Keep the instruction short

  • It only needs to take a few minutes because we want to keep children engaged and attentive.

Get the child to respond to the question, “Where is it?”

  • Ask the child where the object is located.
  • Place the ball in the box then ask, “Where is the ball?”
  • If the child gives the correct response, respond by saying, “Yes! It’s IN the box!” If the child does not respond, model to them by saying, “It’s in the box.”

Progress to novel objects using the same preposition

  • Replace the ball with a truck and the box with a basket.
  • Repeat steps 2 through 4.

Ask the child to perform the action

  • Have the child demonstrate their understanding of the targeted preposition by having him or her do the action themselves.
  • Say, “Put the ball in the box,” “Put the doll in the basket,” or “Put the truck in the bin”.

What is Generalization?

Once your child can perform and demonstrate understanding in a structured situation, how will he or she generalize this new skill or ability?

Generalizing is the act or process of applying a learned response to a similar but not identical situation.

Children with severe disabilities sometimes have difficulty transitioning a skill or learned concept to use in different settings, situations, or other people. 

Therefore, it’s necessary to practice in various settings, with different people, and in multiple contexts. 

Generalization Activities for Prepositions 

  1. Have a scavenger hunt
  • Have the child hide some objects around a room. Try to find the hidden objects, but pretend you can’t locate them! This prompts the child to tell you the location of the objects using the appropriate preposition. For instance, “The ball is under the couch,” “The book is on the coffee table,” Or, “The truck is in the bin”.

2. Ask for a desired object

  • Place a highly desirable object like a treat or a favorite toy someplace and prompt the child to ask for it based on its location. For instance, “The cookie is on the counter,” or “The chips are on the shelf in the pantry”.

3. Follow the direction

  • Ask your child to follow a direction that includes a preposition. For instance, “Put the hat in the cubby,” or “Put the boots on the shoe rack”.
  • Listen and Follow the Directions has several activities that may be fun for your children.

4. Do Some Chores!

  • Clean and set the table – ask your children to help clean and set the table for dinner. They can locate the paper towels or rags and the cleaning spray (“under the sink”, “in the tubby”, etc.) and put the dishes and utensils in the correct place.
  • Do laundry  – encourage your children to help you do the laundry. Sort the clothes into piles, put dirty clothes in the washer, pour the detergent in, etc.
  • Wash the dishes and put them away – many young children like playing in the water but washing the dishes is a productive way to touch water and practice using and responding to prepositions.
  • Cleaning up toys – having your children clean up their toys will not only teach them life-long organization skills and save your sanity, but teaching them to put away toys in the proper location is another way to practice using and responding to prepositions.

I hope this post has been helpful!


Hicks, C.S., Rivera, CJ., & Wood, C.L. (2015) Using direct instruction: Teaching preposition use to students with intellectual disability. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 46 194-206. 

Watkins, R.V. & Rice, M.L. (1991). Verb particle and preposition acquisition in language-impaired preschoolers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 34 1130-1141. https://doi.org/10.1044/jshr.3405.1130

Back to blog

Join My Email List To Access My Resource Library

[gravityform id="3" title="false" description="false"]