Introduction to Language 25 - 36 Months - Understanding and Using More Words and Sentence Types Print
Research Review / Parent
Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta
Between 25 and 36 months, toddlers make many gains in both their understanding and their use of language. Their vocabularies continue to increase and this allows them to produce longer and more complex sentences. Their ability to put sounds together further develops. They begin to produce words with different syllable structures. Language continues to develop in the context of interaction with others. For information on this critical context, please refer to Interacting.
Understanding and Using New Words - Ever-Increasing Vocabularies
Twenty-four to thirty-six month-old toddlers' understanding of words continues to develop alongside their use of new words. Toddlers learn what words mean one word at a time. They understand general words before more specific words. For example, Avery understood the word "do" before she understood the word "eat." Toddlers likely learn general words first because they can be used in many different situations. General words are heard more often than specific words that apply to only a few situations.
The number of words toddlers use continues to expand as they learn more nouns (names of things like fish and house), verbs (actions like run and jump), adjectives (words that describe nouns like pretty and hot), and adverbs (words that describe verbs like quickly and happily). They also begin to produce more closed-class words such as prepositions (e.g., with, from), pronouns (e.g., he, she), conjunctions (e.g., and, but), and auxiliary verbs (e.g., are, is). These categories of words are known as "closed-class" words because there are only a limited number of words in each category. They may still produce babbling, jargon and protowords, but with less frequency.
By 24 months, most toddlers are able to use over 100 words. In the 25 to 36 month period, their expressive vocabularies increase rapidly. By about 30 months, they may be able to use around 400 words. By 36 months, their expressive vocabularies may have increased to over 1000 words.
Caregivers' expansions of toddlers' utterances may support their vocabulary growth. Expansions occur when caregivers repeat a word or phrase spoken by a toddler with some new words added in. Toddlers may imitate the new phrase or sentence. For example, when 24-month-old Max said "Big ball", his mom expanded it by saying "Max's big striped ball." By adding extra words, his mom showed Max how he could make his sentence longer. As well, she gave him the chance to learn a new word, striped, and the possessive form, Max's.
When they first started to talk, toddlers used few closed-class words in their utterances. In the 25 to 36 month period, they begin to use prepositions (to describe locations), articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, and pronouns. When toddlers use closed-class words, their speech begins to sound more like adults.
In the 13 to 24 month period, toddlers may have begun to use the words in and on. Between 27 and 30 months of age, most toddlers use these prepositions correctly 90% of the time. Toddlers typically use on when they want to describe the relationship between an object and the surface it is on. For example, twenty-six-month-old Avery said, "Hat on" when she put her hat on her teddy. Toddlers use in when they want to describe the relationship between an object and the container it is in. Avery said "Truck in basket" when cleaning up her toys. Toddlers may not understand that they can use on to describe the relationship between an object and a container until 36 months of age. As a toddler, Avery never used the word on to describe a toy that was lying on the lid of the toy box or that the lid was on her milk cup.
Toddlers may also understand and use away, out, over, and under. Behind, beside, between, and in front of can be more difficult for toddlers to understand and use depending on the situation. For example, to understand what to do when his dad says, "Put the bear in front of the chair," Max has to first identify the front and the back of the chair. When objects do not have readily identifiable fronts and backs (e.g., a ball), the task becomes more difficult. For adults, the front of these kinds of objects is the surface nearest to the listener, while the back is the surface farthest away. In these cases, toddlers must consider the perspective of the speaker as well as the relationship between the objects to understand the meaning of the preposition.
Prepositions that describe basic relationships between objects in space (e.g., on, in, under) are easier for toddlers to understand than those that describe more complicated relationships (e.g., behind, beside, between, in front of). To understand these words toddlers must not only consider the relationship between the objects but also how each object is oriented.
Toddlers at 30 months also begin to use to as a preposition indicating "going toward." For example, Avery said "Daddy go to work?" when she could not find her dad.
To use a preposition correctly, toddlers must first understand its' meaning. Researchers have found that toddlers use the following two strategies when trying to understand unfamiliar prepositions:
- If B is a container, A belongs inside it (e.g., if Avery has a spoon and a bowl and her mom tells her put the spoon beside the bowl, she will most likely put the spoon in the bowl.)
- If B is supporting a surface, A belongs on it (e.g., if Max has a bowl and he's asked to put it under the table, he is most likely to put it on the table.)
When toddlers use these strategies, they are using the objects mentioned to determine how to respond not the prepositions. For example, when Max's nan asks him to "Put the block in the bucket" and he does, he is responding to the words block and bucket. He recognizes that bucket is a container and puts the block inside it. When toddlers use these strategies, they seem to always understand in, understand on only with respect to surfaces and never understand under. Toddlers also use word order and context to understand unfamiliar prepositions. For example, 28-month-old Max has been part of the clean-up routine many times. As a result, he has learned that when his mom says, "put the blocks beside the teddy" he should put them on the shelf.
Between 25 and 27 months, toddlers begin to use the conjunction and to list two things.For example, at snack time, twenty-six-month-old Avery said, "Juice and cookie." Younger toddlers list things by saying the names of the two things one after the other as "Coat. Hat."
When they are around 30 months of age, toddlers begin to use and to join two sentences. Telling his mom about his afternoon at his nan's house, Max said "I ate cookie and I played truck." Toddlers may now also produce a series of sentences each starting with and. Excited about telling her mom about playing at daycare, Avery said, "And I runned. And I falled." In this situation, and means and then.
Thirty-month-old toddlers may also begin to use because and so. For example, when Max was asked why he pushed another boy, he said, "Cause I mad." When playing with her baby doll, Avery said, "Baby hungry so eat." Although toddlers may be using these words correctly, they don't fully understand their meaning.
Pronouns are words used in place of nouns. They convey information about gender (or lack thereof) and the number of people or objects being referred to. There are several different types of pronouns. Subjective pronouns (i.e., I, you, he, she, it, we, they) are used as the subject of sentences (e.g., I hit the boy). Objective pronouns (i.e., me, you, him, her, it, us, them) are used as objects in sentences (e.g., The girl hit him). Generally, toddlers learn subjective pronouns before objective ones. By 36 months, toddlers have mastered most pronouns.
During the 13 to 24 month period, toddlers may have used the pronouns I and it. It generally first appears in unanalyzed wholes. For example, twenty-month-old Max would say "Stopit" whenever someone was doing something he didn't like but he never used it in other phrases. Gradually, he started to use it in other ways such as saying "Give me it" and "I want it."
In their second year, children may have also used the demonstrative pronouns this and that. At nineteen months, Avery said "This cup" when choosing between two sippy cups. Between 27 and 30 months, toddlers begin to use my, mine, me and you. You tends to be used before me, mine and my. Toddlers first say you in commands. When having difficulty putting on his shoes, 28-month-old Max said, "You do Mom." Between 31 and 34 months, toddlers begin to use your, she, he, yours, and we in sentences. For example, thirty-two-month-old Avery told her Dad, "We can sing." The order in which pronouns emerge will vary among toddlers.
When toddlers first begin to use pronouns, they will use them only some of the time. They may also initially use them incorrectly. For example, at first Max said, "Mine ball" instead of "My ball." Toddlers are more likely to confuse pronouns when they are forming a noun + verb + noun sentence and when they are imitating someone else. For example, Avery's mom told Avery, "You want a cookie" but Avery grabbed the juice box and, imitating her mom, said, "Me want cookie!" Toddlers do not typically make use pronouns that refer to themselves (e.g., I, she) instead of pronouns that refer to others (e.g., she, he, you). For example, they will not mistakenly use she instead of I. When learning pronouns, toddlers first use I at the beginning of utterances and me at any other position in the utterance.
Auxiliary verbs are verbs which add meaning to the verb that follows it or make a sentence more grammatically correct. They can be attached to not to make negative sentences (e.g., "I can't go"). They can be placed before the subject to form questions (e.g, "Can I go play?). These verbs are also used to avoid repetition when answering a question. For example, in response to the question "Who is hungry?" Avery answered, "I am" instead of "I am hungry" avoiding repetition of hungry by deleting it.
Toddlers begin using auxiliary verbs at different ages. At 27 months of age, about half of all toddlers begin to use the verbs have and do as auxiliary verbs. For example, when Max's mom asked him, "Where did the cookie go?" twenty-eight-month-old Max said, "I've got it." When talking about a friend at the playground, Avery said, "She do swinging." Around 30 months, toddlers start using can, be, and will as auxiliaries. For example, when riding on a friend's motorized car, Max shouted, "I can drive!" When his mom got home, Max told her, "I is driving." Avery said, "I will cook" when she heard her dad ask who was cooking supper. Thirty-month-old toddlers also begin using not with these auxiliaries. For example, when one of her friends tried to squeeze in line at music class, Avery said, "Don't push!" For more information on the verb "to be" as an auxiliary verb, see the sections on the Uncontractible Auxiliary and Contractible Auxiliary.
Producing New Words - Sounds and Syllable Structures
As their vocabularies grow, toddlers must learn to use new sounds and to say new words with different syllable structures. They may simplify the sound and/or syllable structures of new words in order to make them easier to say. Toddlers learn about sounds and syllable structures by playing with words.
Twenty-four- to thirty-six-month-old toddlers who are English-speaking may now be using all 24 consonants (p, b, t, d, k, g, f, v, s, z, h, sh, th [as in "the" and "this"], zh, j, ch, l ,r, w, y, m, n, ng). As some sounds (e.g., t, d, p, b, m, n, w) are easier to produce than others (e.g., k, g, s, z, y, r, l, sh, ch), toddlers may continue to make errors on sounds within words. At the beginning of this period, toddlers typically leave out difficult sounds. For example, Max, at 24 months, said "wa" for watch. By 36 months, most speech errors are substitutions of one sound for another. By 36 months, Max was saying "wash" for watch. Toddlers may also have difficulty correctly producing some vowels. They most often change them to "ih" or "uh," as Max did when he said "hud" for head.
Substituting One Sound for Another
Researchers have identified a number of different types of substitutions in toddlers' speech. Toddlers substitute a sound that they have difficulty making with another sound that they can produce.
The p, b, t, d, k, and g sounds all develop early. They are known as "stop sounds" because air flowing from the lungs is "stopped" by the front or back of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth or by the lips touching together. In comparison, for f and s which develop later, the tongue must be kept at a certain distance from another spot in the mouth to allow air to flow through. This action requires finer motor control and may be more difficult for toddlers. Stopping occurs when toddlers substitute a stop sound for one where the air should flow through. For example, twenty-four-month-old Max said, "do" for shoe. Stopping occurs most often on the beginning sounds in words. Toddlers may also "stop" nasal sounds as twenty-six-month-old Avery did when she said, "sab" for Sam.
Fronting is another type of substitution. It occurs when toddlers substitute a sound produced at the front of the mouth (e.g., t, d, n, s) for a sound produced at the back of the mouth (e.g., k, g, ng) or middle of the mouth (e.g., sh). For example, toddlers may produce "cat" as "tat" and "show" as "sew." Fronting has been identified in 23% of 36-month-old toddlers.
Gliding is a substitution occurring when l or r are replaced with w or y. For example, thirty-month-old Avery said, “yick” for lick and “wock” for rock. Gliding may continue into the school years.
Saying the Same Sound in Two Places in a Word
Another way that toddlers simplify the words they say is by saying the same sound in place of two different sounds in the same word. For example, toddlers commonly produce “doggie” either as “goggie” or “doddie.” Instead of using both a d and a g sound, they use the same consonant twice. Sometimes when words have a sound produced at the back of the mouth (e.g., k, g) at the end of the word, toddlers will also produce a “back” consonant at the beginning of the word. For example, Max, at 27 months, said, “kake” for “take.” He also produced “dark” as “gawk.”
In the 25-36 month period, toddlers can produce words with a greater variety of the syllable shapes. They continue to simplify syllable structures to make words easier to produce.
By 24 months, toddlers say words with the following syllable shapes: vowel-consonant (e.g., up), consonant-vowel (e.g., bye), consonant-vowel-consonant (e.g., sad), and consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (e.g., puppy). By 36 months, toddlers will also say consonant-consonant-vowel (e.g., sky), consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant (e.g., stop), consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant (e.g, tops) and vowel-consonant-consonant (e.g., eggs) words. Throughout this period, toddlers generally do not say words longer than two syllables.
Simplifying Syllable Structures
As in the previous year, twenty-four- to thirty-six-month-old toddlers continue to simplify words to either consonant-vowel (CV) or consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (CVCV) forms. This simplification most often affects consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words. Toddlers may also simplify words with more than two syllables and consonant clusters within words.
Simplifying CVC words.
Toddlers may either delete the final consonant (e.g., saying hat as “ha”) or add a vowel sound following the final consonant (e.g., saying hat as “hat-a”). To help them say words, toddlers may also lengthen the vowel preceding the final consonant (e.g., caaat) insert audio. They may substitute an h sound or a kind of gulping sound made at the back of the mouth for the final consonant (e.g., “cah” for cat). insert audio. These different strategies are steps in learning to say CVC words. Generally, toddlers’ first correctly produced CVC words are those with an m or n at the end (e.g., pan, mom). By 36 months, toddlers are producing most CVC words correctly.
Simplifying longer words.
Toddlers may shorten longer words to make them easier to say. For example, at 30 months, Avery said, “popter” for helicopter. Toddlers may shorten words by leaving the unstressed syllables off words. For example, at 24 months, Max said, “way” for away. At first, toddlers remove the unstressed syllables in any position in words (e.g., saying “bu-fly” for butterfly). Gradually, they only delete these syllables when found at the beginning of words. Children may continue to drop unstressed syllables from longer words until 48 months.
Toddlers may also repeat syllables within longer words as a way of simplifying them. At 24 months, Avery said “wawa” for water. For longer words, toddlers often repeat the last syllable, likely because this syllable is often spoken with the most stress. For example, Max, at 26 months, said “ehfafa” for elephant. This type of repetition is a step in learning to produce final consonants and is usually no longer heard after 30 months.
Simplifying consonant clusters.
Consonant clusters occur when two or three consonants are produced together (e.g., slip). Toddlers make words easier to say by simplifying consonant clusters. Most frequently, they will delete a consonant from a consonant cluster. For example, twenty-six-month-old Max said “poon” for spoon. Toddlers may delete the first consonant (e.g., s in spoon) or the second consonant (e.g., p in spoon) in the consonant cluster. The language that the toddler is learning and each toddler’s preferences will affect which consonant is deleted. Toddlers learning English have some predicable patterns of simplifying consonant clusters. These patterns are as follows:
- Delete s in s + stop clusters(e.g., “pill” for spill)
- Delete l in stop + l clusters (e.g., “side” for slide)
- Delete r in stop + r clusters (e.g., “cumb” for crumb)
- Delete w in stop + w clusters (e.g., “teet” for tweet)
- Delete m in stop + m clusters(e.g., “bup” for bump)
- Delete n in stop + n clusters (e.g., “sack” for snack)
Other toddlers may add a vowel in the middle of the cluster. For example, at 30 months, Avery said “buloo” for blue.
By 36 months, most toddlers will be saying some consonant clusters. Children may, however, continue to simplify consonant clusters until 48 months.
Learning about Sounds and Syllable Structures
Word play is one way in which toddlers learn about sounds and syllable structures. Rhyming is a form of word play used by 25- to 36-month-old toddlers. At 30 months, Max enjoyed playing the “name game” with his mom, making up silly rhyming names for members of his family like “Daddy waddy” and “Nan-pan.” In order to say words that rhyme, toddlers must compare and match sounds in words. In another form of word play, toddlers may recognize that some words have other words within them. For example, Avery thought it was very funny when she realized that the word ham was “hidden” in the word hammer.
Producing Longer Sentences
By expanding on and combining their two-word combinations, toddlers increase the length of their sentences in the 25 to 36 month period. With their growing vocabularies and the use of smaller units of meaning, they are able to create longer and more complex noun and verb phrases. Around 30 months, toddlers become aware that sentences must contain both a noun and verb phrase, which also leads to the production of longer sentences. Knowing the parts of sentences helps toddlers understand longer ones.
Combining and Expanding Two-Word Combinations
Once toddlers get to the point where half of what they say is two-word combinations, they begin to produce three-word combinations. They make these three-word combinations in one of two ways: 1) by adding two two-word phrases together (e.g., "Baby eat" + "Eat cookie" becomes "Baby eat cookie") and 2) by adding information to shorter sentences that they already say (e.g., adding "big" to "Eat cookie" to make "Eat big cookie"). Sentences are expanded to four words in the same way as are three-word sentences. Toddlers may be saying some four-word sentences at 24 months of age.
The most common three-word sentences produced by toddlers have either the name of an object or a place after the verb. For example, toddlers more commonly produce sentences like "Baby colour monkey" and "Doggie sleep yard" than "Eat big cookie."
Toddlers continue to use language to request objects, request action, obtain information and to respond to questions or comments. Twenty-four to thirty-six-month-old toddlers continue to combine words to indicate that they would like something to happen again (e.g., "More milk") and to deny something (e.g., "No bed."). While in the previous year, these types of phrases accounted for 70% of what toddlers said, by 36 months, the percentage decreases to less than 10%. By 30 months, toddlers combine words to describe what something looks like or feels like (e.g., Big doggie.) Toddlers may also use a single sentence to serve two purposes. For example, in "Mommy's cookies hot?" the toddler is asking for both information and an object.
Modifying Noun Phrases
Noun phrases are groups of words that function as nouns in sentences. In the sentence "The very ugly coat is red," "the very ugly coat" is a noun phrase. Noun phrases can occur in the subject position of sentences as in the previous example. They can also be found following the verb in the object position in sentences. For example, in the sentence "He is a big brown hairy animal", there are two noun phrases: "he" which is in the subject position and "a big brown hairy animal" which is in the object position. In the 25 to 36 month period, toddlers are learning to make longer noun phrases.
Toddlers make noun phrases longer by adding adjectives (e.g., big, pretty), demonstrative pronouns (e.g., this, that), quantifiers (e.g., some, a lot, two), possessives (e.g., my, your) and articles (i.e., a, the). Between 27 and 30 months, they become able to add these kinds of words to the object of sentences as 28-month-old Avery did when she said, “Daddy is big man.” They also begin to use these kinds of words in front of nouns that stand alone as 30-month-old Max did when he grabbed a ball from a friend saying, “My ball.” Over the next three months, they start to add words to nouns that are in the subject position in sentences (e.g., Big boy is mean, My doggie hiding, That boy bad, The ball gone.)
Toddlers rarely make errors when using adjectives to modify noun phrases. They appear to learn very quickly that adjectives cannot be used before pronouns or proper names. Even toddlers don't say "Pretty her" or "Tall Davey."
Toddlers typically learn about the meaning of adjectives before using them to modify noun phrases. Researchers have found that toddlers understand general terms that describe shape or size (e.g., big/little) before more specific terms (e.g., tall/short). Within these pairs, toddlers understand the positive member (e.g., big, tall) of the set before the other half of the pair (e.g., little, short). Toddlers use context to help them understand adjectives that describe shape or size. For example, to understand big and little, toddlers may compare two objects to determine which one is the big one. Another strategy is to judge whether an object is an appropriate size for the activity they are doing. For example, Avery’s dad had the opportunity to help Avery learn the meaning of big when working on a simple wooden puzzle. To help Avery find the right piece, her dad said, “Try the big circle.” By comparing the pieces she had left and the spot she wanted to fill in the puzzle board, Avery began to learn about the meaning of the word big. Through many exposures to adjectives in different contexts toddlers gradually learn the meaning of adjectives.
Toddlers do not always understand the meaning of colour adjectives before they use them. When asked, "What colour is this?" toddlers may answer with a colour word but it will usually be a wrong one. They may also describe an object using the wrong colour word. For example, Max, at 24 months, said, "Green doggie" when referring to a black dog. Toddlers do show some awareness of colour. Researchers have found that toddlers may put objects that are the same colour together when asked to put objects into groups.
Modifying Verb Phrases
Verb phrases are groups of words that function as verbs in sentences. In the sentence “The very ugly coat is red,” “is red” is a verb phrase. Toddlers create increasingly complex verb phrases in the 25 to 36 month period. One way this is done is through the use of verb endings that indicate tense. Between 19 and 28 months, toddlers master the present progressive (-ing). For example, Avery, age 28 months, said “Daddy is running” when she saw her father run on a treadmill. See Present progressive –ing for more information on the development of this verb tense. In the 25 to 36 month period, toddlers also begin to mark present and past tense on verbs by adding either –s or –ed. For example, seeing her mom in the kitchen Avery said, “Mommy makes cookies?” Returning from a walk with his grandfather, Max told his dad, “I tripped.” Toddlers seems to develop verb markers on a word-by-word basis, first learning markers for the general verbs used early in their second year (e.g., makes) and gradually learning markers for more specific verbs (e.g., runs).
These toddlers also begin to produce hafta, gonna and wanna as early versions of have to, going to, and want to. They may use these with another verb as Max did when he said, “I gonna eat” to his Nan as his mom prepared dinner. More commonly, toddlers use them alone as Avery did, when she protested, “I wanna!” as her dad pulled her off a slide that was too high. At 30 months, toddlers also begin to produce negative forms such as I won’t as the opposite of I wanna. The verb phrase “be going to” (e.g., gonna) is used by many children at 33 months of age while “have got to” (e.g., hafta) is not used by most children until 36 months.
Some verbs require an object. For example, to use the verb need appropriately it must be followed by a noun phrase (e.g., “I need a hug.”). In the 13 to 24 month period, toddlers used these types of verbs but did not include objects. For example, at 18 months, Avery said, “Me want” when she wanted something. Now in the 25-36 month period toddlers start to follow these verbs with noun phrases. For example, at 28 months, Avery says, “I want cheerios.” to request a snack. Including objects increases the length and complexity of the verb phrases.
Verb phrases also increase in complexity through the use of auxiliary verbs. For more information on the development of auxiliary verbs, see Auxiliary Verbs.
Using Grammatical Markers
Another way toddlers increase the length of their sentences is by using grammatical markers or bound morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units of language and include open-class and closed-class words as well as bound morphemes. Bound morphemes must be attached to open-class words to be meaningful. They include prefixes that can be added to the beginning of words (e.g., “un-”) and suffixes that can be added to the endings of words (e.g., “-ly). Other bound morphemes are added only to nouns as with the possessive –‘s and plural –s, while others are added to verbs as with tense markers (e.g., -ed). By the time toddlers were saying two-word combinations, they may have understood the meaning of some grammatical morphemes (e.g., -ing, -ed, plural –s). They may also have been using some correctly in their sentences. However, it is not until the 25 to 36 month period, that toddlers being to use the majority of bound morphemes.
In the early 1970’s a researcher named Roger Brown studied how children begin to use bound morphemes and other grammatical elements (e.g., a, the, in, on). He identified fourteen morphemes which appear in the speech of English-speaking toddlers between 27 and 30 months of age and studied how toddlers learn to use them correctly over time. He found that although children begin to use many bound morphemes early, some may not be mastered until they are in school. Researchers consider morphemes to be mastered when they are used correctly 90% of the time.
Morpheme development may be very different in other languages. For example, in Egyptian Arabic, marking of plurals is very complex. As a result, speakers learning this language may not use all markers correctly until the teenage years.
The present progressive verb tense describes an ongoing action. It is formed by using am/is/are with the verb form ending -ing (e.g., am running, is walking, are riding). Toddlers begin to use the present progressive verb tense before they are two years old. While some children may have achieved mastery of this morpheme by 24 months, the age range of mastery of the present progressive -ing verb tense is between 19 and 28 months.
When learning to use the present progressive, toddlers first use it without the auxiliary verb is. For example, when at the doctor’s office with her mom, twenty-month-old Avery pointed and said, “Baby crying.” By the time she was 27 months old, she had fully mastered this tense, producing sentences like “Mommy is cooking.” Toddlers first use the present progressive with verbs that describe actions that are occurring but will end (e.g., drinking). Later, they add the present progressive morpheme to verbs that describe an event which is over quickly (e.g., falling). Toddlers rarely make the mistake of using the present progressive verb tense with verbs that describe how one feels such as “hate” and “need.”
Toddlers fully master in and on by 30 months. For an in-depth discussion of these morphemes, see Prepositions.
The plural form of a noun indicates that there is more than one person or object. For most nouns, the plural form is created by adding “s” at the end of the word. This is known as the regular plural –s. Some toddlers may have begun adding the plural –s before 24 months. The age of mastery for the regular plural is 27 to 33 months. Before they were two years old, toddlers may have used the word more (e.g., more cow) or a number (e.g., two cow) to tell their partners that there was more than one thing. Sometimes, they may not have indicated in any way that there was more than one as 20-month-old Max did when he said, “Cow” while holding up two toy cows to show his nan. When learning to use the plural –s, , toddlers first mark the plural on selected, frequently used words (e.g., “dogs”). Gradually, toddlers will mark the plural on many different nouns. Sometimes, this results in incorrect productions (e.g., foots). Interestingly, toddlers actually do not often make this type of mistake. In the final stage of plural development, toddlers correctly mark the plural on nouns with irregular plural forms (e.g., mouse and mice).
Toddlers will first use the plural -s in short phrases. Max did this at 25 months when he saw some dogs at the park and said, “More dogs.” Soon toddlers use the plural –s in short sentences as twenty-six-month-old Avery did when she said, “I want crackers.”
There are three different sound forms for the regular plural: “s” as in “cats”, ”z” as in “dogs” and “iz” as in “glasses.” Toddlers must also learn which sound form goes with which words. The s is used following voiceless consonants or consonants produced without vocal fold vibration (e.g., boots). The z is used following voiced consonants or consonants produced with vocal fold vibration (e.g., beds). The iz is used if the word ends in s, z, or sh (e.g., brushes). Children first use s correctly, then z and finally iz. They learn to use these forms gradually. Four-year-olds may still be learning when to use each one.
Irregular past tense.
Past tense expresses an action or situation that was started and finished in the past. Most past tense verbs end in –ed (e.g., walked, carried). The irregular verbs have special past tense forms which must be memorized such as ate and drank. Between 27 and 30 months, toddlers begin to use a small group of frequently-used irregular past-tense verbs. This group includes came, fell, broke, sat, and went. When learning the regular past tense –ed, toddlers may incorrectly add that morpheme to verbs with irregular past tense. Thirty-month-old Avery did this when she tripped and said, “I falled” instead of “I fell.” The age range for mastery of this morpheme is between 25 and 46 months.
A possessive noun shows ownership. Possessive nouns are formed by adding an “s”. For example, when saying “Daddy’s hat” the “s” indicates that Daddy is the owner of the hat. At first, toddlers show possession by word order and stress. For example, at age two, Max showed that he understood whose hat he was holding when he put the word Daddy first and said, “Daddy hat.” Toddlers begin learning the possessive“s” between 27 and 30 months. At first, they use this morpheme with nouns that refer to people or animals (e.g., Mommy’s, Puppy’s). Toddlers mark possession on objects that can have different owners (e.g., clothing) before they mark possession on objects that can only have one owner (e.g., body parts). Toddlers’ age range for mastery of the possessive is 26 to 40 months.
Like the plural s there are three sound forms (i.e., s, z, iz) of the possessive “s.” Children mastery of these forms is gradual. For more information on these sound forms, refer to Regular Plural –s.
When the verb “to be” is the only verb in a sentence, it is called the copula. The copula may be followed by a noun (e.g., The books are the prize), adjective (e.g., The books are red), adverb (e.g., He is late) or prepositional phrase (e.g., The books are from the library). Toddlers first master the copula in sentences where it is uncontractible. This means that it is not grammatically correct to contract the copula. There are several instances where this is the case:
- When using the copula – are (e.g., The books are heavy cannot be contracted to The books’re heavy.)
- When the copula is first or last word in a question (e.g., Is he sick? cannot be contracted.)
- When the response to a question omits information that is already understood (e.g., in response to the question, “Who is here?” a child may say, “Daddy is” omitting the word here, but cannot contract is to say, “Daddy’s.”)
- In negative sentences in which not is already shortened (e.g., The boy isn’t sick. cannot be contracted further.)
- In past tense (e.g., The boy was sick. cannot be contracted.)
Age of mastery for the uncontractible copula is between 27 and 39 months.
English has two types of articles: definite (the) and indefinite (a, an). Articles come before nouns to specify whether the speaker is referring to any member of a group, or to a specific member of a group. The definite article the is used to indicate a something specific. The article a is used to refer to any member of a group. For example, adults may start a conversation about clothes with “I want to buy a new shirt” (i.e., a indicating that new shirt refers to any shirt) and continue it with “The shirt I liked best was green and blue striped” (i.e., the is used because shirt refers to a specific one).
Toddlers first use the articles a and the when they are between 27 to 30 months old. They master these morphemes between the ages of 28 to 46 months. Toddlers first use articles when naming. For example, on a trip to the zoo, 28-month-old Avery proudly told her Grandma "That's a monkey." Initially, toddlers use the article a more often. Use of the definite article the develops later. At first, their productions of the and a sound very similar as they have difficulty making the "th" sound in the and tend to omit it. This may make it difficult for listeners to determine which of these morphemes toddlers are using.
Past tense expresses an action or situation that was started and finished in the past. Most past tense verbs end in -ed. as in patted and climbed. Regular past tense is mastered between 26 and 48 months. As mentioned previously, toddlers may initially overgeneralize this morpheme to irregular past-tense verbs as Avery did when she said, “Grandma comed”, instead of “Grandma came.” Toddlers are more likely to use this morpheme on verbs that describe an event that has a clear and specific end like drop.
There are three sound variations of the regular past tense. The voiced form, d, is used following voiced consonants or consonants produced with vocal fold vibration (e.g., begged), while the voiceless form, t, is used following voiceless consonants or consonants produced without vocal fold vibration (e.g., walked). The final irregular form, ed, is used following t and d (e.g., batted) and is acquired last.
Third person singular marker: Regular and irregular.
Any person, place or thing other than the speaker and the listener is referred to in the third person. Third person singular is a verb form used when the sentence is referring to only one other person (i.e., he, she). In English, the third person singular is most often marked with an s at the end of the verb (e.g., He runs). The age of mastery for this morpheme ranges between 26 and 46 months. Like the plural and possessive, there are three sound forms – s, z, and iz. For more information on these sound forms refer to Regular Plural –s.
There are only a few English verbs that mark third person singular irregularly. Two examples are the third person singular forms of the verbs do and have, which are does (e.g., He does) and has (e.g., She has).
The verb to be can be used as an auxiliary or helping verb as in He was running. Auxiliary or helping verbs add information to the main verb and make sentences more grammatical. There are a number of situations in which the auxiliary form of to be cannot be contracted or shortened.
- Past tense forms of the verb to be cannot be shortened (e.g., She was running. cannot be shortened to She’s running.)
- When it is the first or last word in a sentence (e.g., the response She is. cannot be shortened to She’s.)
- In negative sentences when not is already contracted (e.g., She isn’t running. cannot be contracted further.)
- When the response to a question omits information that is already understood (e.g., in response to the question, “Who is driving?” a child may say, “She is” omitting the word driving, but cannot contract is to say, “She’s”.)
The age of mastery for the uncontractible auxiliary is between 29 and 48 months.
When the verb to be is used as the main verb in a sentence, it is called the copula. The contractible copula is a copula that can be shortened or contracted. For example, Doggie is big can be shortened to Doggie’s big. The contractible copula is mastered between the ages of 29 and 49 months. Toddlers may first learn is and are before am. They often overuse is as 26-month-old Max did when he saw older boys in the playground and said, “They is big” instead of They are big. As the contracted form is short and not emphasized when speaking, listeners may not recognize when toddlers use the contractible copula incorrectly.
The contractible auxiliary is a form of the verb to be that when used as an auxiliary or helping verb can be shortened or contracted when spoken. For example, the sentence Daddy is drinking juice can be shortened to Daddy’s drinking juice. The contractible auxiliary is mastered between the ages of 30 and 50 months. Toddlers’ development of this morpheme is similar to their development of the contractible copula. See Contractible Copula for additional information.
Developing Different Sentence Forms
In the 13 to 24 month period, toddlers expressed negatives, questioned and made demands primarily by changing the tone and pitch of their voices. Between 30 and 34 months, they begin to use more adult-like sentence structures for negatives, questions, demands, or imperatives, and statements or declaratives. In the 25 to 36 month period then, toddlers will use a combination of tone, pitch, and sentence structure to express these different forms.
Researchers have identified three phases in the development of adult-like negative sentences. Between the ages of 25 and 28 months, toddlers create negative sentences by inserting a no or not at the beginning or end of a statement. For example, twenty-six-month-old Max said, “No house” when his mom asked him to come inside. Toddlers first use negative sentences to indicate that something is gone or away (e.g., No cookie). They next use negative sentences to reject something, as Max did in our previous example No house. Finally, toddlers become able to use negative sentences to disagree (e.g., Not doggie). Interestingly, toddlers may also use negative sentences to keep conversations going. For example, twenty-eight-month-old Avery was busy playing with her blocks but wanted to keep her dad’s attention too. When he said, “Let’s go downstairs” she looked up briefly and responded “No Daddy. More blocks.” Then he asked, “How about we go read books?” and she again looked up and said, “No Daddy. Blocks now.” Finally, he asked, “Do you want a snack?” Avery said, “No Daddy” but then realizing what he had said, jumped up and said, “Snack Daddy!”
In the second phase, toddlers create negative sentences by using no or not next to the verb, as in the following example, I no want cookie. Toddlers begin producing this kind of negative sentence between the ages of 28 and 32 months. During this time, they use no, not, can’t, and don’t but do not seem to understand that they mean different things. Toddlers appear to develop individual preferences for particular negatives. For example Avery tended to use no saying sentences like No milk, Doggie no running, and Bedtime no Daddy. Max rarely said, no but used not a lot in such sentences as Not up Mommy, Daddy not eating, and Not swim. These preferences may be influenced by their caregivers’ use of different negative markers.
Between 32 and 36 months of age, toddlers begin using auxiliary verbs in their negative sentences. For example, when Avery’s grandma called, 34-month-old Avery told her, “Mommy is not home.” Thirty-two to thirty-six-month-old toddlers may also begin to use won’t. For example, when struggling with his toy CD player, 36-month-old Max complained, “It won’t play!”
There are three stages in the development of question sentences. Between the ages of 25 and 28 months, toddlers use a rising tone of voice to indicate that they are asking a question. For example, twenty-six-month-old Avery said, “Baby seepy (sleepy)?” after seeing her aunt put her newborn cousin in his crib. In this stage, toddlers also begin to use what and where questions. Toddlers use what and where questions to find out the locations and names of the objects and actions around them .They will form a what question by using what plus a noun or noun phrase. For example, twenty-seven-month-old Max was interested in his neighbor’s dog. He asked his mom “What doggie?” and she understood that he meant “What’s doggie doing?” Toddlers form where questions in the same way. For example, after watching her mommy drive away, twenty-eight-month-old Avery asked her daddy, “Where mommy?” which he understood to mean, “Where’s Mommy going?”
Between 26 and 32 months of age, toddlers begin to ask why questions. They continue to use a rising tone of voice to ask yes/no questions. What and where questions are used more frequently. Toddlers’ questions during this stage contain both a noun phrase and a verb phrase but do not usually contain an auxiliary verb. For example, thirty-month-old Max asked his dad, “Where puppy hide?” When toddlers use auxiliary verbs in questions, they do not change the word order as adults would. For example, watching a friend, twenty-eight-month-old Avery asked her mom, “She is eating?” instead of saying “Is she eating?” as an adult would.
In the third stage, between 31 and 34 months of age, toddlers produce questions with the auxiliary verb before the verb. Children usually use appropriate word order with wh-questions first. For example, when thirty-four-month-old Max noticed that his neighbor’s dog was gone, he asked his dad, “Where did puppy go?” Three-year-old toddlers may produce wh- and yes/no questions with or without auxiliary verbs (e.g., What daddy do? or What is daddy doing?). Yes/no questions are also common at this stage. They may be produced using either the copula or an auxiliary verb and with appropriate word order. At thirty-six months, Avery was able to ask, “Is Daddy making dinner?” when she saw her dad using the barbeque.
Toddlers begin to use what, where, and who before why, when, and how. They may ask what, where and who questions first because they are both easier to understand and easier to respond to. To understand why, when and how questions, toddlers must understand more abstract concepts, such as time and cause-and-effect, which are later-developing concepts. As well, there is a difference in the types of responses that are given to why, when and how questions. When responding to a what, where, or who question, toddlers may give a single word answer. For example, when 28-month-old Avery was asked, “Where is your teddy?”she simply answered, “Sleeping.” In contrast, when responding to why, when, and how questions, they must provide a full sentence response. For example, when 36-month-old Max was asked, “Why did you tear up your picture?” he explained, “Cuz I was mad.”
Question-asking is important for language development. Researchers have found that toddlers who ask more questions also have bigger vocabularies.
Researchers use the term imperatives to describe sentences that are used to request, demand or command that the listener do something. Between 18 and 30 months of age, toddlers use body language and tone of voice to indicate the imperative. For example, when 25-month-old Max wanted to go outside, he would point at the door, pull on his mom’s hand, and say “Go yard” insistently. These early imperative sentences do not have clear subjects. In the previous example, Max’s mom must guess whether Max wants to go outside or if he’s trying to draw her attention to something happening outside. True imperatives where subject, you, is implied are not produced until about 31 months of age. An example of a true imperative sentence would be Pick me up meaning You pick me up.
Toddlers’ understanding of imperatives continues to develop during their third year. Twenty-four to thirty-six-month-old toddlers now understand two-step directions. For example, thirty-month-old Avery responds appropriately when asked to “Go get your baby and put it to bed.”
By 30 months, toddlers acquire the basic subject + verb + object structure of declarative sentences. For example, seeing her dad reading a book, Avery said, “Daddy read book.”
They are also able to use the subject + copula +adjective structure. Max did this when he said, “Mommy is pretty.”
Acquisition of closed-class words such as auxiliary verbs and prepositions allows toddlers to produce declaratives with the following structures:
- subject + auxiliary + verb + object
Example: Abby is going school.
- subject + auxiliary + copula + adjective
Example: Daddy will be happy.
Toddlers usually develop the subject + auxiliary + verb + object structure first.
Toddlers’ understanding of active and passive declarative sentences develops over time. In active sentences the subject acts on the object at the end of the sentence (e.g., The man picked up the spoon). In passive sentences, the subject that is performing the action comes at the end of the sentence (The spoon was picked up by the man). Toddlers younger than 30 months of age understand active sentences such as The dog is chasing the cat. They will interpret passive sentences such as The cat was chased by the dog as if the first noun (i.e., cat) was the subject and the second noun (i.e., dog) was the object (i.e., as if the cat was chasing the dog). Toddlers do not understand passive sentences until they are 48 months or older.
The Role of Context in Understanding Words
Some words change meaning depending on the context. The process by which one uses context to understand a word’s meaning is referred to as deixis. For example, the meaning of the word I changes depending on who is speaking. Toddlers develop an understanding of deixis gradually. They first demonstrate understanding of deixis relative to the pronouns I, you, and me.
Here, there, this, and that are deictic terms that relate to the position of objects in space. Here and this are correctly used to refer to objects that are close, while there and that are correctly used to refer to objects that are further away. For example, someone holding a balloon might say, “Here is my balloon” or “This is my balloon” and pointing to another balloon in the distance, might say, “There is your balloon” or “That is your balloon”. Use of these terms develops in three phases. At first, toddlers will use any of these terms to direct a listener’s attention or refer to an object without knowing which is appropriate. By thirty months, of age, toddlers will use these terms along with a gesture to indicate meaning. For example, thirty-month-old Avery liked to direct her mom’s attention by saying “This one” and pointing. This and that continue to be used without an awareness of which one is appropriate for the situation until children are 48 months of age. In the second phase, toddlers use this and here correctly but overgeneralize to instances when they should have used that and there. For example, at the toy store Max accurately said, “I want this one.” when talking about the ball he was holding, but then said, “I want this one too.” while pointing at another ball up in a display. In the first two phases, toddlers use themselves as the reference point for understanding these words rather than considering the point of view of the speaker. In the final phase of development, they use these terms correctly because they have gained understanding of how the meaning of the words change depending on the point of view of the speaker. Age of mastery varies depending on the term, with some contrasts not understood until adulthood.
Developing Story-telling Abilities
Between 25 and 36 months, toddlers begin to tell their own stories. Researchers refer to these stories as “narratives.” Narratives are a set of sentences which tell about events or experiences. When telling a story, a toddler is responsible for providing all the information needed for a listener to make sense of the story.
The information in a narrative should be provided in a logical order or sequence, telling the listener what happened first, then next, and last. Understanding of sequences is therefore necessary in order to produce narratives. Routines such as bath time, meal time, and bedtime help toddlers develop their understanding of sequences. Although 24-month-old toddlers understand routines and some event sequences, most toddlers are not able to accurately describe a sequence of events until 48 months of age. As a result, the narratives produced in the 25-36 month period are less mature stories that researchers refer to as protonarratives.
A protonarrative is made up of a set of unrelated sentences about a topic. The frequency with which toddlers produce protonarratives doubles between 25 and 30 months of age. Each sentence in a protonarrative provides additional information about the topic and may be of a similar sentence type. The plot is vague and the “story” lacks an easily identifiable beginning, middle, and end. Toddlers’ typically use protonarratives to talk about specific, often upsetting, events. They often do not introduce their listener to the topic before beginning a protonarrative. As a result, these early stories may be difficult for listeners to understand. For example, imagine yourself as Avery’s mother listening to the following “story” that 2⅓-year-old Avery told after a trip to the park:
- “Woof, woof!”
- “I owie!”
- "Sun, sun.” (holding arms over head)
Avery’s mom was able to figure out that Avery had got an “owie” or was hurt at the park but wasn’t sure if it had something to do with a dog. She needed Avery’s dad to explain that Avery had leaned back on the swing and fell off, hurting herself. She had actually seen a dog on the way home from the park. Researchers have found that protonarratives contain five times as many descriptions of feelings and opinions (such as Avery’s “I owie,”) as do conversations. Children clearly use stories to express their opinions to others.
Strategies for Organizing Narratives: Centering and Chaining
Researchers have found that toddlers use two strategies when structuring protonarratives: centering and chaining.
At first, toddlers use centering to create protonarratives around a central theme, as Avery did in her “story” about going to the park. Each object or action mentioned related to the theme but the relationship may not be clear to the listener. Sometimes researchers refer to a protonarrative created using a centering strategy as a “heap.” There is little or no sequencing and no cause and effect in these types of protonarratives so changing the order of the sentences does not affect the meaning. For example, the meaning of Avery’s “story” about going to the park is not changed if the sentences are reordered as: “Sun, sun.” “Woof, woof!” “I owie.”
With chaining, older toddlers relate a series of events with each event logically building on the previous one. For example, three-year-old Max told the following story about going to the zoo:
- “We went to the zoo. There was a monkey. And elephants. We rode on a train. And I got ice cream. We went home. It was fun.”
By 36 months of age, toddlers may be using both centering and chaining strategies when building protonarratives.
Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent Narrative: Language 25 - 36 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development