Teaching Spatial Prepositions in 3D

By Robin Gay Wakeland


Conceptual learning methods were incorporated into two A1-level adult English as a second language classes in 2018. Toys and found objects, together with printed cards, comprised the curricula supplementing the textbook to teach spatial prepositions. Due to the frequency of prepositions in English, learning prepositions can be challenging. The author’s lessons using toys, found objects, and graphic images form the basis for teaching beginning ESL students about spatial prepositions. Students construct oral and written output tasks. These tools have potential as cognitive linguistics, and/or user-based participation methods, which form their theoretical basis. The settings are adult non-credit community college courses in the southwestern USA.

To download a PDF file of this complete article and the appendix (with color flashcards, task list, and written assignment), click this link:
Wakeland, R.G. (2023). Teaching Spatial Prepositions in 3D, flash cards & lessons. LDbase. http://ldbase.org/documents/c259584b-d896-4503-bf36-e4dba6d65451

Literature review and theoretical basis

Learning prepositions is often difficult for both English as a foreign language (EFL) and English as a second language (ESL) students. Polysemy inherent in the words and syntax, plus differences between L1 and L2, contribute to teachers’ and students’ struggles (Kilimci 2017, p. 682-84; Hung, et al. 2018, p. 41). However, recent studies focused on preposition teaching found positive results in ESL adults via experience-based methods (Jach, 2017), cognitive linguistics (Hung et al., 2018), and contextualized learning (Kilimci, 2017). Via textual enhancements based on students’ world views, environment, and imagery, grammar was transformed into a spatial and sensory interaction (Cushing, 2018, 2020).
The lesson in 3D here incorporated these methods. The flash cards illustrated the words with graphic images. The preposition structure and syntax were emphasized through the cloze and written task (see Appendix). Enforcing the linguistic meaning of spatial prepositions, the three-dimensional objects and cards gave students an opportunity to demonstrate meaning by manipulating their positions. Output tasks in both writing and speaking reinforced each other. Further, the repetition of preposition use in different formats and modalities provided a consistent input flood (see Louwen & Inceoglu, 2016).


Two A1-level adult classes were taught during the same semester at a community college in southwestern USA. Although no grades were issued, the instructor corrected all written tasks and gave oral feedback on speaking tasks. One class consisted of 15 students with an average attendance of five. Thirty-five students were enrolled in the second, with 15 in average attendance.

The course followed a B1 ESL textbook. The author’s method was introduced alongside the textbook lesson on spatial prepositions. At the outset, students received a one-page list of spatial prepositions along with the written task to write three sentences using them. The prepositions consisted of: about, above, across from, against, alongside, around, at, before, below, behind, between, in, in back of, in front of, inside, near, next to, on top of, out of, over, together with, through, and under. Students had this for reference while the teacher demonstrated orally the relationships and positions of the objects.

Then, the teacher introduced a bucket with toys and found objects. Each object was named orally and written on the white board. Students acquired new vocabulary, such as “crocodile.” Other toys were a mouse on wheels, a car, a boat, a dinosaur, a dump truck, cardboard tubes, and various-sized rubber and fabric balls. Then, use of each preposition was modeled by the teacher using the objects in relation to the bucket and to each other. For example, “through” was demonstrated by passing objects through an angel food cake, or jello mold pan, and large plastic rings. In addition, the action of a toy car and the mouse on wheels zooming through a cardboard tube exemplified “through.” Thus, the syntax involved both the copula and action verbs. Classroom furniture presented available possibilities for relationships with the objects. A globe was used with the toy airplane to demonstrate “over,” “around,” and “above.”

Students engaged in various tasks using these props:
  • The bucket of objects was passed around the room, and each student chose one, placed it in relationship to the bucket, and spoke a sentence description.
  • Students demonstrated the correct relationships with objects and toys as the teacher announced the preposition.
  • The teacher positioned objects and the bucket, and students then described their relationships.
  • At group tables, with objects, buckets, and white boards, each group configured four relationships, wrote corresponding sentences on the white board, and demonstrated those orally to the class.
  • Students composed three written sentences with the target prepositions.
  • The teacher positioned objects and asked students “Where is…?” questions.
Evoking the same interactive principles and exercises, flash cards and boxes also allowed students to implement spatial prepositions. Here, a box with a lid served the same function as the bucket. It provided not only a container for the cards, but also a platform for spatial relationship positioning. The finite boundaries of the box distinguished the spatial prepositions from their polysemy counterparts (e.g., the snake is in the box, vs. she excels in math).

The flash cards contained an image on one side (see Appendix). On the reverse, a cloze sentence with the copula prompted students to position the object and insert a spatial preposition. A variation with an action verb can be included, as mentioned previously for “through” and “over” exercises. Printed words served a mnemonic function as well. Dry-erase laminate can be applied to the cards. Or, in class, the cloze can be completed as an oral output task and/or written on separate paper.

Z-fold format provided another shape for the same images (see Appendix). These emphasized three dimensionality. Designed to stand up and emulate a toy or found object, they still folded flat to fit in the box. The identifying word was printed on the reverse side. This completed the interactive function, which elicited unending combinations for constructing spatial preposition sentences.


The teacher’s observations provided opportunities for assessing this method. As noted above, as this was an ungraded course, students were not given any summative evaluation. It could be seen in the smaller class that the preposition boxes, bucket, toys, and objects served as a prompt to evoke oral and written responses from students. Among these, the oral responses were more successful than the written. In addition, the method was repeated four times throughout the semester, at times owing to students missing prior demonstrations. No issue ever arose of boredom or the method becoming ineffective upon repetition. Rather, students became more engaged each time.

With the larger class, the sequence of assigning the written sentences after one demonstration resulted in a truncated student response. Students were reluctant to participate orally or complete the writing. For the oral tasks, half the class declined, and the highest achiever had already attained the high level of fluency showed (no increase in fluency).

In subsequent classes, an elaborated teacher demonstration met with more success. Students engaged via speaking by responding to the teacher’s questions. They identified the objects and their various relationships as placed by the teacher and responded to task assignments to create complete sentences (spoken).


The curriculum evoked constructivist and cognitive learning dynamics. Students’ participation paralleled their output strength. The images, oral exercises, and written words repeated the syntax in which the spatial prepositions were embedded and focused students on the grammar form. The method and process prompted students to engage with language and the target structures. The components comprised adaptable tools which were used effectively throughout the semester. Thus, repetition became inherent and instrumental to the method.


Comeaux, I., & MacDonald, J.M. (March 2018). “Determining the effectiveness of visual input enhancement across multiple linguistic cues. Language Learning, 68(1), 5-45.

Cushing, I. (2018). Suddenly, I am part of the poem’: Texts as worlds, reader-response and grammar in teaching poetry, English in Education, 52(1), 7-19.

Cushing, I.  (2020) A textured and sensory grammar for the experience of reading. English in Education, 54(2), 131-145.

Hung, B.P., Truong, V., & Nguyen, N.V. (2018). Students’ response to CL-based teaching of English prepositions. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research. 73, 41-58.

Jach, Daniel. (2017). A usage based approach to preposition placement in English as a second language. Language Learning, 68(1), 271-304, 2017.

Kilimci, Abdurrahman. (2017). Integrating cognitive linguistics insights into data-driven learning: Teaching vertical prepositions. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 13(2), 681-719.

Loewen, Shawn, & Inceoglu, Solène. (2016). The effectiveness of visual input enhancement on the noticing and L2 development of the Spanish past tense. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching. (6)1, 89-110.

Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority. (2020). Victorian curriculum, English as an additional language. Retrieved from https://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/english/english-as-an-additional-language-eal/introduction/rationale-and-aims

To download a PDF file of this complete article and the appendix (with color flashcards, task list, and written assignment), click this link:
Wakeland, R.G. (2023). Teaching Spatial Prepositions in 3D, flash cards & lessons. LDbase. http://ldbase.org/documents/c259584b-d896-4503-bf36-e4dba6d65451

Robin Gay Wakeland works in educational assessment, English as a foreign language, and tutors college English writing. In the past, she has taught ESL at community college.

Spring 2023 - Volume 51, Issue 1