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During the early school years, children learn more and longer words. They become more skilled at putting words together in new and imaginative ways. At this age, they also become more familiar with how language sounds, and how sounds combine to make words.
School boy writing on blackboard

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • By six years, children might know 5000 words or more.
  • Their vocabulary will continue to increase rapidly each year.
 

Here are some of the things children do as their language and communication skills develop in the early school years.

Early literacy and language sounds

By five years, children are aware of the sounds that make up words. They can identify words that rhyme. They might even play rhyming games and sing out a list of words that rhyme (bat, cat, fat, hat, mat ...).

From 5-6 years, children learn the sounds that go with the different letters of the alphabet. This is important for the development of reading skills. Children also become aware that single sounds combine into words. For example, when the ‘t’, ‘o’ and ‘p’ sounds are put together, they make the word ‘top’.

And by eight years, children have more awareness of how individual sounds combine into words. This means that children can work out what word you get if you leave a sound out of another word. For example, when ‘s’ is left out of ‘stop’, the word becomes ‘top’.

When starting school, children might still have problems saying a few sounds. An example is the ’r’ sound, particularly in words like ‘truck’, ‘drain’, ‘bring’ and so on.

Developing vocabulary

By five years, children will sometimes use the correct form of verbs to talk about past events. For example, ‘I jumped’, or ‘I played’. But it will take a few more years for them to get used to the many exceptions in the English language – for example, ‘broke’, ‘threw’ and ‘ate’ rather than ‘breaked’, ‘throwed’ and ‘eated’. Even at eight, children might find the past tense of some verbs tricky.

From the ages of 5-6 years, children understand that single words might have different meanings. They start to rely more on the context of a word to find a particular meaning. For example, ‘cool’ means something different when you say, ‘It’s a cool day’, compared with when you say, ‘That’s a really cool robot you’ve built’. They begin to understand non-literal meanings – for example, ‘make up your mind’.

Your child will understand that new words can be formed by joining two words – for example, ‘bookshelf’. ‘Compound’ words like this become more frequent in children’s speech from 5-6 years. Your child will also use longer words as she gets to know endings that change the meaning of words. For example, when you add ‘er’, it changes a verb into a noun. So ‘teach’ becomes ‘teacher’.

Your child will also start to understand that words don’t always need an ‘s’ to become plurals – for example, ‘feet’ and ‘mice’ rather than ‘foots’ and ‘mouses’.

From six years on, children start to use prefixes (word beginnings) and suffixes (word endings) to make more words. So they can use ‘ness’ (as in ‘happiness’) and ‘un’ (as in ‘unwrap’).

Using sentences

By five years, children can combine words to form active and passive sentences. But they will often have difficulty understanding passive sentences.

For example, they might understand an active sentence such as ‘The dog followed the boy’. But they might think that a passive sentence such as ‘The cat was chased by the dog’ actually means ‘The cat chased the dog’. When describing pictures, they might also mix up who is doing what to whom. By six years, this understanding of sentence construction improves.

At this age, children might also have trouble understanding who pronouns refer to – for example, who ‘she’ refers to in the sentence, ‘The woman told the last girl to arrive that she was late’. From 5-8 years, this understanding improves gradually.

Storytelling skills

From 4-8 years, children’s narrative skills improve and they get much better at telling stories. Their stories get longer and more detailed. The stories might be made up, or about things that have actually happened. It also becomes easier to work out who children are talking about when they’re telling a story, and how the events in their stories fit together. 

In these years, children learn to:

  • use different linking words in the right way (for example, ‘then’, ‘now’, ‘when’, ‘before’, ‘while’ and ‘although’)
  • establish connecting links and causes for events (for example, ‘the boat sank, so everybody had to swim to the beach’)
  • use different sentence types to present the same information
  • use  appropriate pronouns (for example, ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’) instead of names when it’s clear from the narrative who’s being referred to
  • leave out less important details from the story and focus more on the setting of the story and the plot.
Children grow and develop at different rates. The information in this article is offered as a guide only. If you’re at all concerned about your child’s language development, speak with your child’s teacher, doctor or child health nurse.
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  • Last Updated 02-01-2010
  • Last Reviewed 29-02-2012
  • Berman, R. (2009). Language development in narrative contexts. In E.L. Bavin (Ed.) The Cambridge handbook of child language (pp. 355-375). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Owen, R.E. (2005). Language development (6th edn). Boston: Pearson.

    Vellutino, F. (2001). Literacy: Reading (Early stages). In R. Wilson and F. Keil (Eds) MIT Encyclopedia of cognitive sciences (pp. 922-930). Boston, MA: MIT Press.