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Young Children's Oral Language Development

The development of oral language is one of the child's most natural – and impressive – accomplishments.

This article presents an overview of the process and mechanics of language development, along with implications for practice.

When and how language is learned

Almost all children learn the rules of their language at an early age through use, and over time, without formal instruction. Thus one source for learning must be genetic. Humans beings are born to speak; they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their environment.

The environment itself is also a significant factor. Children learn the specific variety of language (dialect) that the important people around them speak.

Children do not, however, learn only by imitating those around them. We know that children work through linguistic rules on their own because they use forms that adults never use, such as "I goed there before" or "I see your feets." Children eventually learn the conventional forms, went and feet, as they sort out for themselves the exceptions to the rules of English syntax.

As with learning to walk, learning to talk requires time for development and practice in everyday situations. Constant correction of a child's speech is usually unproductive.

Children seem born not just to speak, but also to interact socially. Even before they use words, they use cries and gestures to convey meaning; they often understand the meanings that others convey. The point of learning language and interacting socially, then, is not to master rules, but to make connections with other people and to make sense of experiences (Wells, 1986).

In summary, language occurs through an interaction among genes (which hold innate tendencies to communicate and be sociable), environment, and the child's own thinking abilities.

When children develop abilities is always a difficult question to answer. In general…

  • Children say their first words between 12 and 18 months of age.
  • They begin to use complex sentences by the age of 4 to 4 1/2 years.
  • By the time they start kindergarten, children know most of the fundamentals of their language, so that they are able to converse easily with someone who speaks as they do (that is, in their dialect).

As with other aspects of development, language acquisition is not predictable. One child may say her first word at 10 months, another at 20 months. One child may use complex sentences at 5 1/2 years, another at 3 years.

Oral language components

Oral language, the complex system that relates sounds to meanings, is made up of three components: the phonological, semantic, and syntactic (Lindfors, 1987).

The phonological component involves the rules for combining sounds. Speakers of English, for example, know that an English word can end, but not begin, with an -ng sound. We are not aware of our knowledge of these rules, but our ability to understand and pronounce English words demonstrates that we do know a vast number of rules.

The semantic component is made up of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning that may be combined with each other to make up words(for example, paper + s are the two morphemes that make up papers), and sentences (Brown, 1973). A dictionary contains the semantic component of a language, but also what words (and meanings) are important to the speakers of the language.

The syntactic component consists of the rules that enable us to combine morphemes into sentences. As soon as a child uses two morphemes together, as in "more cracker," she is using a syntactic rule about how morphemes are combined to convey meaning.

Like the rules making up the other components, syntactic rules become increasingly complex as the child develops. From combining two morphemes, the child goes on to combine words with suffixes or inflections (-s or -ing, as in papers and eating) and eventually creates questions, statements, commands, etc. She also learns to combine two ideas into one complex sentence, as in "I'll share my crackers if you share your juice."

Of course speakers of a language constantly use these three components of language together, usually in social situations. Some language experts would add a fourth component: pragmatics, which deals with rules of language use.

Pragmatic rules are part of our communicative competence, our ability to speak appropriately in different situations, for example, in a conversational way at home and in a more formal way at a job interview. Young children need to learn the ways of speaking in the day care center or school where, for example, teachers often ask rhetorical questions. Learning pragmatic rules is as important as learning the rules of the other components of language, since people are perceived and judged based on both what they say and when they say it.

Nurturing language development

Parents and caregivers need to remember that language in the great majority of individuals develops very efficiently. Adults should try not to focus on "problems," such as the inability to pronounce words as adults do (for example, when children pronounce r's like w's). Most children naturally outgrow such things, which are a tiny segment of the child's total repertoire of language.

However, if a child appears not to hear what others say to her; if family members and those closest to her find her difficult to understand; or if she is noticeably different in her communicative abilities from those in her age range, adults may want to seek advice from specialists in children's speech, language and hearing.

Teachers can help sustain natural language development by providing environments full of language development opportunities. Here are some general guidelines for teachers, parents, and other caregivers:

  • Understand that every child's language or dialect is worthy of respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and experiences of the child's family and community.
  • Treat children as if they are conversationalists, even if they are not yet talking. Children learn very early about how conversations work (taking turns, looking attentively, using facial experiences with conversing adults.
  • Encourage interaction among children. Peer learning is an important part of language development, especially in mixed-age groups. Activities involving a wide range of materials should promote talk. There should be a balance between individual activities and those that nurture collaboration and discussion, such as dramatic play, block-building, book-sharing, or carpentry.
  • Remember that parents, caregivers, teachers, and guardians are the chief resources in language development. Children learn much from each other, but adults are the main conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders, and sustainers of language development and growth in the child-care center or classroom.
  • Continue to encourage interaction as children come to understand written language. Children in the primary grades can keep developing oral abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising questions, and providing information in varied situations. Every area of the curriculum is enhanced through language, so that classrooms full of active learners are hardly ever silent.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Brown, R. A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1973.

Cazden, C.B., Ed. Language in Early Childhood Education. Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1981.

Fletcher, P., and M. Garman, Eds. Language Acquisition, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge, 1986.

Genishi, C., Children's Language: Learning Words from Experience. Young Children 44 (Nov., 1988): 16-23.

Genishi, C. and A. Haas Dyson. Language Assessment in the Early Years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1984.

Heath, S.B. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. New York: Cambridge, 1983.

Hough, R.A., J.R. Nurss and D. Wood. "Tell Me a Story: Making Opportunities for Elaborated Language in Early Childhood Classrooms." Young Children 43 (Nov., 1987): 6-12.

Lindfors, J.W. Children's Language and Learning, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Wells, G. The Meaning Makers: Children Learning Language and Using Language to Learn. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

Genishi, C. (1998). Young Children's Oral Language Development. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.


Treating children as if they are conversationalists promotes language use. If we speak to them in a manner that doesn't raise the bar of expectation, they will not grow and prosper linguistically. Cell phones take away so much from the social growth of everyone. People need to talk to others, including children so they can grow from their experiences.

This article is great. Oral language development and the fostering of that development is so important. Taking the time to really talk, interact and actively listen to your children is critical in oral language development.

I liked the comment "treat children as if they are conversationalists". I am a big component of not talking "down" to children, but intelligently to them.

As a new grandparent, I look forward to watching my grandson master oral language. I found it interesting the article stated that "constant correction of a child's speech is usually unproductive." Also, it was noted that the point of language is to interact socially and not master rules, but to make connections with other people and to understand experiences.

The line in the article "The point of learning language and interacting socially,then, is not to master rules, but to make connections with other people and to make sense of experiences"
Makes so much sense to me, for me "relationship" is what preschool is all about

This article stands as a reminder of the importance of discussions with our children and student. I have observed many instances this summer where parents and children are plugged into cell phones or games during dinner instead of having conversations with each other. Small children are not always getting that language development opportunity at home.

I work with so many different ages. all of them talk at different paces. its nice to know how to track what the average is and if I should be concerned about any of them and give feedback to the parents

This is a great article covering oral language. A childs development is so important

This article emphasizes the life experiences that children need and how those experiences shape their language development. This is a great reminder of opportunities to take in communication (and listening).

I want to become a teacher and this article helped me with understanding language

This is a great article about oral language. It is so important for children to get experiences with oral language before school begins. So many children lack social and oral skills when they arrrive to Kindergarten and that puts them behind from day one. Parents could greatly benefit from the information in this article.

A child's development is so important to consider in their emergent reading skills. There are so many factors that lead to a child's literacy and reading levels. As teachers, I think we should remember that children don't all get the social language practice in their beginning years at home. These students begin school with a much smaller vocabulary.

Great article. It is so important to help children facilitate their pragmatic language skills. So many of our special needs children have difficulty with this area. But with focus on social language at home and with a friend or friends they can develop these skills. Help is available through speech/language therapy or a social skills tech. We need to look for and ask for these services.

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"Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world." —

Malala Yousafzei