Language development in children at 5-8 years: early literacy and language sounds
By five years, children know that words are made of different sounds and syllables. When they’re listening, they can identify words beginning with the same sound – for example, ‘Mummy made magic marshmallows’. They can also notice words that sound the same and play rhyming games with words like ‘bat’, ‘cat’, ‘fat’, ‘hat’ and ‘mat’.
At 5-6 years, your child might know some or all of the sounds that go with the different letters of the alphabet. This is an important first step in learning to read. At this age, children also learn that single sounds combine together into words. For example, when you put the ‘t’, ‘o’ and ‘p’ sounds together, they make the word ‘top’.
By six years, children start to read simple stories with easy words that sound the way they’re spelled, like ‘pig’, ‘door’ or ‘ball’. They’re also starting to write or copy letters of the alphabet, especially the letters for the sounds and words they’re learning.
By eight years, your child understands what they’re reading. Your child might read on their own, and reading might even be one of their favourite activities. By this age children can also write a simple story.
By the time children are five years old, unfamiliar people can understand all of what they say, even though they might still mispronounce a few words. For example, they might still have problems saying sounds like the ’r’, ‘l’ or ‘th’ sound. They might say ‘wing’ instead of ‘ring’ or ‘fink’ instead of ‘think’.
Vocabulary and language development
By five years, children can mostly use the correct forms of verbs to talk about past and future events. For example, your child can say ‘I played with Maxie’ to talk about the past and ‘I will play with Maxie’ to talk about the future. Children also begin to understand some concepts of time – for example, night, day and yesterday.
Your child will start to realise that there are exceptions to grammatical rules. For example, we say ‘broke’, ‘threw’ and ‘ate’ rather than ‘breaked’, ‘throwed’ and ‘eated’. It’ll take a few more years to learn the many exceptions in the English language. Even at eight years of age, some children might have trouble with the past tense of some verbs.
At 5-6 years, children start to understand that single words might have different meanings, so they start to use the context of a word to know what it means. 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 also begin to understand metaphors and non-literal language – for example, ‘Make up your mind’.
Your child will understand that they can make new words by joining two other words – for example, ‘bookshelf’. You’ll hear ‘compound’ words like this more often in your child’s speech.
Your child will also begin using longer words as they learn that the beginnings and endings of words change their meanings. For example, your child can add ‘ness’ (as in ‘happiness’), ‘un’ (as in ‘unwrap’), and ‘er’ (as when ‘teach’ becomes ‘teacher’).
And your child will also start to understand that some words don’t need an ‘s’ to become plurals – for example, ‘feet’ rather than ‘foots’.
By eight years, children start to understand jokes and riddles and use language in an abstract way. For example, your child might tell a joke like ‘What kind of shows do cows like to watch?’ ‘Moo-sicals’.
Your child might also start to compare two things using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ – for example, ‘They swim like a fish’.
Language skills develop with practice. Children practise by talking with others, reading and having lessons in the classroom. And language and reading skills develop together all the way through school.
Using sentences as part of language development
By five years, children can follow three-step directions.
Your child can understand and combine words to form active sentences – for example, ‘The cat chased the dog’. They also start to understand passive sentences – for example, ‘The cat was chased by the dog’.
But when children are describing pictures, they might mix up who is doing what to whom. Your child’s ability to make correct sentences will improve gradually in the next few years.
By eight years, your child can use compound sentences with words like ‘and’ or ‘but’ to join sentences together – for example ‘It’s Dan’s birthday today and they want to play video games’. Your child can also use these words to explain when one event depends on another – for example, ‘Dan wants to play video games but not until after Priya arrives’.
Storytelling and language development
From 4-8 years, children get much better at telling stories. Your child’s stories are probably longer and more detailed – and they probably make more sense too. The stories might be made up, or about things that have actually happened. They might have a theme, character or plot and contain actions and events in a logical sequence – for example, ‘The boat sank, so everybody had to swim to the beach’.
As your child keeps learning and practising language, their storytelling will improve. It’ll be easier to work out who your child is talking about when they’re telling a story, and how the events in their stories fit together.
In these years, your child might:
- use different linking words in the right way – for example, ‘because’, ‘then’, ‘now’, ‘when’, ‘before’, ‘while’ and ‘although’
- use different sentence types to present the same information
- correctly use pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ when they’re telling a story
- understand the difference between fact and theory – that is, the difference between ‘What happened?’ and ‘Why do you think … ?’
Children who grow up in a bilingual or multilingual family might take a little longer to reach certain language milestones. That’s because they’re learning words in more than one language. But by the time your child is halfway through primary school, they’re likely to speak and use English just as well as their peers.
When to seek professional help for language development
If you notice any of the following signs in your child, or you’re worried about your child’s language development, it’s a very good idea to see your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician.
At six years, your child:
- is difficult to understand or isn’t speaking in full sentences
- has trouble following two-step directions, like ‘Please put your pyjamas on your bed after you’ve put your clothes on’
- has stopped using a language skill they once had.
At eight years, your child:
- has a stutter or lisp when talking
- has difficulty following instructions
- has stopped using a language skill they once had.
Your health professional might refer you to a speech pathologist.
Children learn new skills over time and at different ages. Most children develop skills in the same order and each new skill they learn builds on the last. Small differences in when children develop skills are usually nothing to worry about.