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Helping Your Child Learn Prepositions
by Libby Kumin, Ph.D., CCC-SLP   

This isn't just a wonderful photo book, it's also a teaching tool! You can use this book to introduce the concepts of direction and location (e.g., on and off) to your child. Point to the part of the photograph that represents the preposition, for example, on, and say the word. What does on mean? Before your child can say the word, he or she needs to understand what the word means. Prepositions involve space, so once your child is familiar with the words from the book, you want to provide real life experience with each concept. But how? Through play!   

Connecting the Word with the Concept

On the playground or in a gym, your child can experience in, on, and off using the equipment. You just need to say the word to draw your child’s attention to the preposition that goes with what he is experiencing. You can use playground experiences to practice and reinforce these concepts. Your child can go down the slide, under the swing, and up the ladder. Start with the single word and if possible, use a scenario close to the one in the book (sitting on a large ball or going down a slide). Signs can also be used to represent the preposition. Use total communication, i.e., the sign and the word. An additional benefit is that most of the signs for prepositions, such as through or between, look very much like the concepts they represent.


Generalizing the Word/Concept

Once your child understands the on and off concepts, you want to generalize those concepts so that he learns that on can be used in many different situations. Use a big cardboard box or laundry basket to practice the various preposition “locations.” Put your child in the box, on the box, and off the box. Then, use a smaller box and put a doll or stuffed animal in, on, or next to the box while you label the action, i.e., "in box." Work up to asking your child to put the doll in or next to the box. While you are playing, be sure you vary the type of boxes and toys to ensure generalization of your child’s emerging skills. If you always teach prepositions by putting the same block on or in the same shoebox, your child will tend to identify prepositions only with that situation.


Expanding Phrases

You want to help your child use the new words in longer phrases. Children with Down syndrome generally begin using two words together when they have a 100 word vocabulary (may be speech or sign) at about age three. The two-word phrases they use are combinations of the single words your child already knows. Most children with Down syndrome are using two words together consistently by age five. A good technique to use to help your child learn to combine words is “imitation with expansion.” If your child can say the single word on, you first repeat what your child has said, then expand what he said by one word. Imitation with expansion helps children learn how to combine words, and it provides the stimulation right at the level where they can learn. Three points are important to remember about imitation with expansion:

  1. Repeat what your child says.
  2. Validate that what he says is correct, i.e., demonstrate that you understand him and that he used a correct word.
  3. Expand what your child says by one word.

What if he is able to say the word on, but is unlikely to say it voluntarily? Then give him a model. You say on and then expand what you said to two words, on ball. Remember, too, that your child may initiate conversations without using speech. For instance, he may gaze or point at an object. Whenever possible, follow your child's lead. You can respond to his initiations by labeling the object, and then expanding. You may have to present the imitation with expansion many times before your child begins to use two-word phrases, but keep at it! Repetition is essential, so provide many opportunities to practice.


Pacing Boards

Another technique that you can use to help your child use prepositions in longer phrases is a pacing board. A pacing board is a cueing system that reminds your child, through vision and touch, how many words he is able to use in sequence. The pacing board is a rectangular piece of paper or tag board with at least two colored dots, or a square of velvet and a square of sandpaper, or two colorful dinosaur stickers, or anything else that your child likes. When you use imitation with expansion, point to the dots on the pacing board as you say each word. For example, in modeling the phrase on ball, point to the first dot as you say on and to the second dot as you say ball.

Use hand-over-hand assistance to help your child get accustomed to using the pacing board for practice. Hold your hand on top of his hand and take him through the pointing motion. Using the pacing board provides multisensory cues--visual and tactile reminders for your child to use two separate words. Pacing boards are especially helpful for children with Down syndrome because they make use of their visual strengths to remind them to include two words.

Once your child is able to use two-word combinations, encourage him to do so consistently and make a 3-dot pacing board to help him move on to three-word phrases (e.g., boys on ball). Ask day-care workers, grandparents, adult friends, family, and even siblings to encourage your child to expand his phrases. If your child is reading, put words on top of the dots and use the pacing board with reading as an additional visual cue. As your child is able to sequence more words together, make new pacing boards with dots and words appropriate to your child’s skills. An example of a progression using the photos in the book might be:

  • On
  • On ball
  • Boys on ball
  • Boys sitting on ball
  • Boys are sitting on ball
  • The boys are sitting on the ball.

Answering Questions with Prepositions

When your child is able to use prepositions in speech, ask, "Where do you want to go?" and then respond to his answer, whether it be "in the sandbox" or "down the slide." What if he answers your question with "sandbox" or "slide," even though you know he knows the prepositions? Repeat the question, and then give the answer, emphasizing the preposition by making it louder or more dramatic: "Where do you want to go? Down the slide.

Enjoy the photos! Enjoy the practice!

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