How To Teach Prepositions Of Position To Young Learners
A quick summary of what prepositions to teach kids and how to do so.
Students whose L1 has postpositions rather than prepositions might never fully get the hang of which is which in “A is under B” and very young learners can still be learning exactly what “in front of” means as a concept, but activities with “on”, “in” and “under” can be useful and fun from as early as three years old. Prepositions is the closest thing to a grammar point that they can cope with at that stage (other things like plurals and third person S that are usually dealt with being acquired late if ever). Being able to tell students “stand in front of the whiteboard” and “put your pens in your bags” is also obviously invaluable for classroom management. In addition, the topic of prepositions is infinitely adaptable to different levels, with loads of games with just “in”, “on” and “under” for beginners and issues like the difference between “in front of”/“opposite” and “in the corner”/“on the corner” for those who think they know everything. As you will see from the activities below, it is very easy to combine prepositions of position with other language points such as classroom objects, household objects, animals and transport.
The approximate order I would present prepositions of position in is:
- next to
- in front of/behind
- on the right/on the left
- near (to)/close to/far from
As well as the conceptual and translation difficulties mentioned in the introduction, possible problems when teaching this point include:
- Students confusing “above” and “on”- easy to do as “under” is the opposite of both words
- The distinction between prepositions of position and movement can be confusing, especially as many have the same form (e.g. “Put the book on the table” is actually a movement) and others (e.g. “above” and “up”) have similar meanings but different forms
- Some prepositions have different forms, and students have often been taught the most old fashioned and so least useful version (e.g. “by” or “besides” rather than “next to”)
Activities to practice prepositions of position can be broadly divided into:
- TPR activities
- Activities with realia and/or flashcards
- Drawing and craft activities
- Video activities
- Picture books
There are so many good activities for teaching prepositions that there are whole articles on this site about prepositions of position practice through video, TRP, drawing and craft, and realia and flashcards. This article will deal with songs and picture books, plus a few ideas that don’t fit into any of those categories.
Songs and chants for prepositions of position
I only know two songs from textbooks that are specific to prepositions of position, and I wouldn’t especially recommend either of them. Instead, I prefer to adapt body and classroom objects to this grammar point. For example, before each “verse” of Head Shoulders Knees and Toes you can shout out a preposition, e.g. getting students to put their hands under the head, knees and toes and then in front of their eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
Unlike songs, there are loads of great books specific to prepositions of position. The all-time classic is Where’s Spot, and I’ve written a whole article on how to exploit this picture book in EFL classes in ways like students hiding a little cut-out Spot in different positions in the book once you’ve read it through once. Where’s Wally (= Where’s Waldo) can also be used if students are told they can’t point but instead need to explain where Wally and other characters are. There are also EFL storybooks specific to this point from companies like Apricot Books.
With higher level classes, you can also introduce a CLIL component with topics like animal habitats, traditional clothing, fashion, or living a greener lifestyle.
Other activities for prepositions of position
Prepositions magazine search
This is a classic activity that can be used for all kinds of language points. Give students books, catalogues or magazines with lots of pictures (it doesn’t matter if they all have the same one or different ones from each other). Say something that they should have a chance of finding in what they are holding, e.g. “A man on something” or “One person between two people”, and give a point to the first person to find a picture of exactly that.
Prepositions normal or strange
Students try to work out if things are normal or strange from descriptions by a teacher or their classmates, e.g. shouting out “Strange” if the teacher says “My head is under my bottom”, touching the flashcard that say “Normal” if their classmate says “The teacher is in front of the whiteboard” or holding up their left hands when they read an OHP that says “A monkey in next to the zoo”.
Prepositions sentence completion guessing game
Students complete sentences to make them true for themselves, e.g. “I like sugar on/ in my milk and cereal”, “I often put sugar on _______”, “I often put sugar in _______” and “I can put my foot _______”. They then read out just the part they have written (not the original printed bit) for the other students to guess which gap they wrote that in. This can also be done without the first writing stage.
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.