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Using Prepositional Phrases in, through and within writing

Prepositional phrases are an invaluable tool, especially when writing a narrative or descriptive piece. Take this extract from Artemis Fowl:

The river was folding gently before her like a silver snake, hissing as the water tumbled across a stony bed. The oak tree crackled overhead, its branches rasping together in the bracing breeze.

Without the prepositional phrases, this short descriptive piece becomes bland, but also harder to imagine.

The river was folding gently like a silver snake, hissing as the water tumbled. The oak tree crackled, its branches rasping together. Here are some ways to introduce, teach and develop prepositional phrases. As with all grammar activities, they work best if used in context, so the sentences children produce should be able to be used in their final piece of writing. If taught as an insular lesson, with a random topic, you won’t find anywhere near as much impact. Oh, and a quick note about grammar pedants. If one tells you that you can’t put a prepositional phrase at the end of a sentence, this is simply not true and you can send them to me and I’ll give lots of examples with them at the end (see what I did there). It is true that putting prepositions at the end of the sentence makes it less formal, but for most writers, there’s no need to worry about it.

Introducing Prepositional Phrases

Thank you to Grammarsaurus for this lesson idea.

Rather than tell them their function, allow the children to discover what prepositional phrases do themselves. Read the passage below and ask them to draw it. Then read a similar passage that uses prepositional phrases and spot the difference.

Foreboding rain hangs like an ice mirror staring back through time. Curious eddies of drifting rain create a pathway. The sand lies untouched. Sharp rocks guard the coastline from intruders.

There stands an extraordinary collection of giant stones which appear to have been placed there in a time long ago… but by who? A cascade of rainbow light interrupts the dark clouds but unusually there are no shadows.

In the distance, foreboding rain hangs like an ice mirror staring back through time. Below it, curious eddies of drifting rain create a pathway towards a picturesque blanket of sand that lies untouched. Protruding from the silent beach, sharp rocks guard the coastline from intruders.

At the border of the beach and forest, there stands an extraordinary collection of giant stones which appear to have been placed there in a time long ago… but by who? A cascade of rainbow light interrupts the dark clouds and shines on the rocks, but unusually there are no shadows.

This type of activity allows a discussion about what the prepositional phrases add to the writing. Although they don’t give any more information in regards to the features of the island, we have far more of an idea where things are and many of the sentences flow into each other, in a more natural way.

Warmups and games

Using these books, you can quickly introduce different prepositions using fun pictures. But don’t spend too long on it, use it as a quick introduction and move onto the writing activities, so that they can write sentences in a context.

If you have children who need reinforcement with understanding prepositions in instructions, Games to Learn English have a lovely game where the children need to follow the instructions and put the items in the correct place. Great as a warmup or intervention before writing.

We all love (or hate) a game of Pictionary. Give the children silly sentences such as The Tree is sitting on top of the castle. Get the children to quickly make a drawing of it and then show their partner. Once they’ve finished, redraw the picture, but using a different preposition. Can their partner guess what the preposition is in the sentence?

Developing Prepositional Phrases

When they are ready to start exploring phrases, have a bit of fun generating them. Give a picture stimulus and start by asking them to generate noun phrases or simple sentences (blue). This is a good opportunity to talk about adjectives, personification, similes, and metaphors, but don’t overwhelm them or lose focus. This is a means to develop prepositional phrases.

Once this is done, you can talk about the prepositional phrases. Talk about different prepositions and what they mean. You can download a preposition mat from these websites to help them generate their own:

Once they are ready, start putting the two together to create sentences. Read the sentence to their table. Discuss what the preposition is and what it tells you about the objects in the sentence.

If you want to work in their books, they can then write the phrases on smaller versions of coloured paper and stick in their books. The children will love the colourful paper, but it will also help highlight which is the prepositional phrase in the sentence.

Deepening the learning

Now is where the magic happens. Ask the children to move the phrases between each other. How does this change the sentence? Do they all work? If not, why not? The difference between a trite and an impactful grammar activity is in the conversation. Can your pupils talk about why these things work? Can they justify themselves? They might not agree with you, but if they can justify their choices then that’s absolutely fine. Who is to say that the teacher is always right?

This activity will give a huge bank of ideas to the children and give them the oral rehearsal and reasoning skills that they will need to use the phrases effectively in their own writing.

Prepositional phrases are so important in creative writing, but are often overlooked. I hope you enjoy teaching them and that you see the difference in their writing as a result.


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