Think of grammar as the tool to make our language more complex. Bigger words and more complex sentences, means more complicated ideas.
- the set of rules for how words, groups of words (phrases) and
- sentences can go together.
Grammar is the tool children use to make their ideas more complex and specific.
We can see grammar in action by paying attention to language complexity. This is how complex an adult or child’s words, phrases or sentences are. For example, a big first step for early language users is combining two words together (like "Mummy up!" or "want ball") to communicate.
We can think of grammar at the level of the:
- word — the endings on words like plurals "girls", or verb endings (suffixes) like "eating"
- phrase — groups of words together, like "the quiet girls", or "eating slowly"
- sentence — a group of phrases that makes a complete idea, like "the quiet girls were eating slowly"
The importance of grammar
Grammar provides the building blocks for children to understand and express themselves in longer and more complex ways.
When children increase their language complexity (with word endings, or longer/more complex sentences), they can express and understand more complicated ideas.
This complements children’s linguistic development in other areas including:
- the content (e.g. vocabulary, making meaning) and
- uses (e.g. conversation, social skills, narrative skills) of language.
Educators and parents play a vital role in modelling the use of more complex language. Educators can foster the development of grammar in the following ways (explored further below):
- responding to and expanding on children's language attempts
- modelling increasingly complex language
- talking explicitly about words, phrases, and sentences.
Key developmental milestones
The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but doesn’t limit the expectations of every child (see VEYLDF Practice Principle: High expectations for every child). It is always important to understand children’s development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age. These milestones provide just some examples of the changes in what children say as they get older.
Early Communicators (birth - 18 months)
- use mainly gestures, eye gaze, and vocalisations to communicate
Early Language Users (12 - 36 months)
- begin to use single words to communicate (12-18 months)
- begin to combine words together (around 24 months)
start to use word endings (suffixes)
- e.g. -ing, like in ‘playing’ (18-28 months)
- plurals, like in dogs, apples (2-3 years)
- past tense, like fall —> fell, jump —> jumped (around 2 years onwards)
• start saying longer sentences of 3+ words (around 3 years)
When children start combining words together (around 2 years), this is an important step in their language development. Combining words is the start of communicating bigger ideas. As well as labelling and requesting, children can start describing their world, and better communicate their own perspective. Early forms of word combinations include the following kinds of ideas:
person doing something
- daddy eat
- eat “nana” (banana)
which or whose thing it is
where something is
When children start combining words, there are many more opportunities to share their ideas.
Building longer words
We can provide more information by adding/changing the endings (suffixes) of words. Children usually learn these word endings in a sequence. Some of these include:
Word ending examples -ing ending on verbs(progressive)
plural -s(regular plural)
‘s ending on nouns (possessive ‘s)
- child --- children
- one fish---two fish
irregular past tense
regular past tense
-s ending on some verbs
Language and Emergent Literacy Learners (30 - 60 months)
- begin to say full sentences with function words like the a, is, and does
‘Boy eat ice-cream now’ —> ‘The boy is eating ice-cream now’
- start saying more complex sentences with two verbs, like ‘I wanna read book’ (from 2.5 years)
- start joining two sentences together, like ‘I saw a dog and I patted him!’ (from 3 years)
- start using conjunctions like because, before, if, and so, like ‘She likes that one because it has a rainbow on it!’ (from 3.5 years)
Building longer sentences
As children start to consistently combine words together, they can also start using more complicated grammar in their sentences. Some of these new ways of combining words include:
Kind of sentence examples
Telling someone to do something (imperative)
- Give ball!
- Read the story!
- No water
- It was not his turn
Asking questions(what where when how why which whose)
- Is that mine?
- Where is the pencil?
More complex actions (verbs)
- I have to go home
- I like swimming in the pool
More complex objects(nouns)
- I want the one with the bow.
- Give me to the book we read!
- The cat and dog
- I want red or blue
- We saw the fireworks, then we went home.
- The dog is happy because he has a bone
General teaching strategies
Children’s grammar will develop as they are exposed to lots of language. The kinds of language we use is also important. To provide rich language learning opportunities, educators can: expand on children's language, model complex language, and talk explicitly about words, phrases, and sentences.
These strategies can be embedded within any of the teaching strategies for interacting with others (e.g. reading with children, play, performing arts, fine arts). The interactions we have with children shape their language development. Photo: Pixabay
Expanding on children’s language
- Follow the child’s attention and interest, and let them guide the experience somewhat
- When children attempt words, repeat back the word clearly:
e.g. Child: [pointing to egg]: e! Educator: Egg!
Child: [pointing to floor]: dow!! Educator: Down? Let’s go down!
- Whatever children say, try to build on it with more words: e.g. Child: cup Educator: The yellow cup!
Child: big elephant Educator: Look at the big, grey elephant!
Child: go down Educator: Do you want to go down to the floor?
- Check out these teaching practices for more ideas:
- Link to language in everyday situations
Link to language stimulation
Link to play
Link to sociodramatic play
Modelling complex language
As adults we have a huge amount of language to share with children. Think about how to keep your language 1-2 steps ahead of children, so they can hear more complex ideas and longer sentences they might be able to imitate. You can use (model) language when you interact with children, to expose them to more complex language. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Ideas for Language to Model Examples
Describe nouns (person, place, thing)
- Find a fish who doesn’t have any spots
Describe locations (using prepositions)
- Can you see the bubbles through the window
- Put your hands on top of your head
Use more detail about when something is being done
- I have eaten my fruit
- She was eating her fruit before
Talk about how something is occurring (use adverbs)
- The car went very fast down the ramp
- She accidentally dropped her bag
Use thinking and feeling verbs
- I want to open the box
- Your tried to lift the bucket.
Compare features of things (adjectives)
- The dog is just as quick as the cat
- You are almost as strong as me!
Tell when, where, and how things happen
- Whenever I clap my hands, look at me.
- The water gets to the sea by flowing through the rivers and streams.
Give reasons and explanations for things
- You can go outside, because you have eaten your fruit
- She wanted to draw another picture, even though she was tired.
Use words to show the possibility of something
- She might come soon
- They could have eaten the eggs!
Use other words like instead, while, otherwise, to link ideas together
- Instead of this book, you want the dinosaur one!
- You can’t use all the paint, otherwise we won’t have any to share.
Check out these teaching practices for more ways to model complex language:
Link to language in everyday situations
Link to reading with children
Link to sustained shared thinking
Link to play
Expanding on what children say and modelling complex language is important.
It allows children to hear more examples of language they could use themselves.
Talking explicitly about language
For Language and Emergent Literacy Learners, we can start to talk about the concepts of words and sentences (see Concepts of Print).
You can use these strategies to help children develop an understanding of how language works:
- Talk about words when interacting with children
e.g. “fuzzy! that’s a great word” “I really like that word!”
- Talk about the types of words you are using during interactions
E.g. “Wavy is a great describing word, (an adjective)…
I wonder what other describing words we can think of to talk about the sea?”
- Comment on great examples of children using longer words or sentences
e.g. Child: “Look at the two horses.” Educator: “Yes, look at those two horses! That word has a special ending so we know there’s two or more of them.
e.g. Child: “I can play with this because she gave it to me.” Educator: “That is a very good reason.”
- Learn more about word types and thinking about language on the vocabulary and higher order language pages.
Link to vocabulary
Link to higher order language
Theory to Practice
Grammar is the rules of how we can build words (morphology) and sentences (syntax). These rules are an integral part of the “form” of oral language (Bloom & Lahey, 1978).
According to the sociocultural theories of language development (Vygotsky, 1967; Bruner, 1986), children learn through interactions with more knowledgeable peers.
When children hear more complex language, they can start to imitate and learn these “forms” of language (Zauche et al., 2016).
Having more complex language gives children the tools to think about and understand more advanced concepts, and express their ideas more accurately.
Complex language facilitates more complex thinking. Photo: Pixabay
When young children have meaningful interactions, and are exposed to lots of language, their later language skills (including vocabulary and grammar) improve and develop (Hart & Risley, 1995; Weisleder & Fernald, 2013).
These improvements also impact their greater educational achievement in schooling (Zauche et al., 2016; Hart & Risley, 1995).
Outcome 5: Communication
Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes:
- respond verbally and non-verbally to what they see, hear, touch, feel and taste
- show increasing knowledge, understanding and skill in conveying meaning
Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:
- begin to make connections between, and see patterns in, their feelings, ideas, words and actions, and those of others
Early communicators (birth - 18 months):
- model lots of language for children
- when children attempt to say words, even if it isn’t completely clear (word approximations), repeat back the word clearly
- respond to all communication attempts
- follow the child’s attention and interest, and let them play an active role in guiding the experience
- see Making Meaning and Expressing Ideas through Communication focus page
- see the practices Language in Everyday Situations, Language Stimulation, and Reading with Children
Early language users (12 - 36 months):
Expanding children’s language.
- whatever children say, try to build on it with more words:
- child: cup, educator: the yellow cup!
- child: big elephant, educator: look at the big, grey elephant!
- child: go down, educator: do you want to go down to the floor?
- through play and sociodramatic play, educators can build upon children’s language in a naturalistic way
- link to sociodramatic play
Modelling complex language:
- describe nouns (person, place, thing)
- the shiny red ball
- find a fish who doesn’t have any spots
- describe locations (using prepositions)
- can you see the bubbles through the window
- put your hands on top of your head
- use more detail about when something is being done
- I have eaten my fruit
- she was eating her fruit before
- talk about how something is occurring (use adverbs)
- the car went very fast down the ramp
- she accidentally dropped her bag
- use thinking and feeling verbs
- I want to open the box
- You tried to lift the bucket.
Check out these teaching practices for more ways to model complex language: Language in everyday situations, Reading with children Questions and investigations — Sustained shared thinking, Play
Language and emergent literacy learners (30 -60 months):
Modelling complex language:
Use the language modelling examples above, as well as:
- compare features of things (adjectives). e.g.:
- the dog is just as quick as the cat
- you are almost as strong as me!
- tell when, where, and how things happen. e.g.:
- whenever I clap my hands, look at me
- the water gets to the sea by flowing through the rivers and streams
- give reasons and explanations for things. e.g.:
- you can go outside, because you have eaten your fruit
- she wanted to draw another picture, even though she was tired
- use words to show the possibility of something. e.g.:
- she might come soon
- they could have eaten the eggs!
- use other words like instead, while, otherwise, to link ideas together. e.g.:
- instead of this book, you want the dinosaur one!
- you can’t use all the paint, otherwise we won’t have any to share.
Check out these teaching practices for more ways to model complex language: LINK TO LANGUAGE IN EVERYDAY SITUATIONS, READING WITH CHILDREN, SUSTAINED SHARED THINKING, PLAY
Expanding on children’s language
Show you are interested in what children say by building upon their words and sentences. Here is one example of a large expansion on a child’s sentence:
- child: “The fox jumped down”
- educator: “Yes! That naughty fox with the bushy tail was the one who jumped right down the rabbit hole. He was trying to catch the rabbit.”
See LANGUAGE SIMULATION
Talk explicitly about words and sentences
- talk about words when interacting with children, e.g.:
- “fuzzy! that’s a great word”
- “I really like that word!”
- talk about the types of words you are using during interactions, e.g.:
- “wavy is a great describing word, an adjective… I wonder what other describing words we can think of to talk about the sea?”
- comment on great examples of children using longer words or sentences,e.g.:
- child: “Look at the two horses.” educator: “Yes, look at those two horses! That word has a special ending so we know there’s two or more of them
- child: “I can play with this because she gave it to me.” educator: “That is a very good reason”
Learn more about word types and thinking about language on the VOCABULARY and HIGHER ORDER LANGUAGE foci pages.
Bloom, L., & Lahey, M. (1978). Language development and language disorders. New York, NY, US: John Wiley & Sons.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hart, B. M., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016)
Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF) Retrieved 3 March 2018.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016)
Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Weisleder, A., & Fernald, A. (2013). Talking to children matters: Early language experience strengthens processing and builds vocabulary. Psychological Science, 24(11), 2143–2152.
Zauche, L. H., Thul, T. A., Mahoney, A. E. D., & Stapel-Wax, J. L. (2016). Influence of language nutrition on children’s language and cognitive development: An integrated review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36, 318–333.