Parental advice for tracking grammar development during early years

When you think of grammar, your first thought might be punctuating sentences in an English lesson or some discussion about why children at primary school need to know about fronted adverbials. (Whatever that means!) However, our understanding of grammar begins a long time before we start school, with even babies noticing and learning about the grammar used in the languages spoken around them.  

Language development as a whole begins before children are born, as they listen to the voices around them and begin to recognise voices and patterns of words. Scientists found that new-born babies recognised their mother’s voice and stories told to them before they were born! [1]   

However, if you have learnt to speak a language as an adult, you might have thought about how important knowing grammar is when you are thinking about how to express yourself. It’s a key feature of language, and understanding grammar helps us to structure sentences clearly to share our ideas with others. The same can be said for your child, as proper grammar allows for more fluid communication, aiding concept articulation and social connection. As a result, we rate grammar development as an essential part of a child’s development. 

In this article, we will explore children’s language development with a particular focus on grammatical development, answering questions like ‘What might you notice that shows your child’s understanding of grammar is developing?’ and ‘How do you support this aspect of their language development?’ Read on to find out! 

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The Basics of Language Terminology 

When you are chatting with friends, you might not think much about grammar, but these rules help us to understand meaning. The same words arranged in different ways can change the meaning of a sentence, for example;  

The teddy fell on the bed.   

The bed fell on the teddy.  

The order of these words changes the meaning of the sentence and to understand the difference you need to understand grammar. We tend not to think about these rules in the language or languages we learnt as babies and young children, but we know understanding these rules is important. Simply put, grammar can be defined as the ‘rules’ of a language [2]. 

Other terms to take note of are ‘morphology’ and ‘syntax’. Morphology is simply word structure, so includes aspects such as using word endings to make a word plural or to change its tense. Syntax is about sentence structure, so how words are ordered in a sentence to make the meaning clear.  

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How do Children learn Grammar? 

There are different ideas about how babies and children develop an understanding of grammar. Some researchers suggest there is an innate understanding of grammar (so we are born with a basic knowledge of grammar) and others argue that grammar is learnt through experience with a language [3]. 

Despite these discussions, there seems to be agreement that children develop their language through listening to those around them and by interacting with others even before they can speak.  

Initially, your baby will communicate by crying but as they develop, they will begin to use smiles, gazes and sounds when they interact with you. After a period of babbling, they will begin to say some single words, first words will often be nouns (naming words). At first, you might notice a gradual increase in the number of words they use, then you might notice a rapid increase in your baby’s vocabulary. You might feel they are using more words every day!  

Even when your baby is using single words their meaning is likely clear to you. Perhaps they reach towards their cup and say, “Drink,” which is a request, “Please can I have my drink?” These combinations of single words and gestures that convey meaning are known as, ‘holophrases’ [2]. 

After some time, your child will begin to use two or more words together. At first, they include keywords, so they might say, “More milk,” or “Mummy work.” This speech is known as ‘telegraphic speech’ and lacks some grammatical structure but does follow some rules such as word order.  

As your child’s vocabulary increases, you will also notice they start to use a wider variety of word types. They might start using nouns but then begin to use verbs and adjectives and they will begin to use word endings to change the meaning of words.  

You might notice your child makes some mistakes as they generalise what they know for all words, this shows their understanding of the rules of grammar is developing. For example, they might comment, “Dog runned.” They understand that the word ending –ed is used for the past tense of a verb but have not yet learnt that some verbs have an irregular past tense. You might even notice your child makes new verbs, such as, “You scissor it?” meaning, “Did you cut it?” This shows their understanding of the rules of grammar as they apply the rules they know in new ways [4]. 

Some key grammar developments you might notice as your child’s speech develops include:  

  • Using two-word sentences. 
  • Using plurals and word endings (-ing and –ed) 
  • Using three-word sentences, beginning to ask questions, at first using intonation but then using question words, “Teddy gone?” then “Where is teddy?”  
  • Using longer sentences with correct word endings, “Dog walked to the park.”  
  • Using conjunctions such as, and, because to make longer and more complex sentences [4]. 

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How can you help improve your child’s grammar? 

The best way to support your child’s language development and understanding of grammar is through your conversations with them. You will probably simplify your language when you talk to your baby but speaking to them using correct grammar will help to promote proper grammar development.  

For example, use pronouns correctly, so when you are talking to them call yourself ‘me’ or ‘I’ and call them ‘you’ or use their name. 

If your child makes a mistake, do not ask them to repeat what they said, simply say the sentence back to them correctly. For example, if they say, “My runned.” you could say, “Yes, you ran home.”  

Talk to your baby and child about the things that interest them, try to use more comments than questions and give them time to think and respond.  

When your baby starts to speak, use slightly more words than they are using, so when you comment extend what they have said. For example, if they say, “Sheep.” you could say, “Yes, a big sheep.”  

Share books, rhymes and songs with your child, these can provide opportunities to hear a wide variety of vocabulary and to see words used in different ways.  

At My First Five Years, we know babies and young children learn through play, and your child will learn about language as you chat and play together. We also know that children learn at different rates, in our app, we break down the steps of language development so you can celebrate as your child masters skills in the language. 



[1] Byrne, E., (2021) How to build a human: What science knows about childhood. London: Souvenir Press 

[2] Mitchell, P. & Zieger, F (2013) Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology (2nd edn.). Hove: Psychology Press 

[3] Addyman, C (2020) The laughing baby: The extraordinary science behind what makes babies happy.  London: Unbound.  

[4] Johnston, J. & Nahmad-Williams, L. (2009) Early Childhood Studies:Principles and Practice. Oxon: Routledge.