Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Introduction to Language 3 - 5 Years - More Mature Understanding and Useclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

Between three and five years of age, children continue to make gains in both their understanding and their use of language. Their vocabularies grow in size. They produce longer and more complex sentences. During the preschool period, children's speech will become clearer as they master new sounds and new 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

Preschoolers’ vocabularies continue to expand as they understand and use more nouns (names of people and things like mommy, fish and house), verbs (action words like run and jump), adjectives (words like pretty and hot that describe nouns), and adverbs (words like quickly and happily that describe verbs). They also begin to understand and use more prepositions (e.g., with, from), pronouns (e.g., he, she), conjunctions (e.g., and, but), and auxiliary verbs (e.g., are, is). These types of words are known as closed-class words because there are only a limited number of words in each group. Children are able to express their thoughts and ideas more clearly because of their growing vocabularies.

Vocabulary Growth

By three years of age, most children will be able to use between 900 and 1000 words. By the time they are four years old, their vocabularies will be between 1500 and 1600 words. By five years of age, children's vocabularies will have grown even more, to around 5000 words. Researchers have found that children add an amazing five to nine words a day to their vocabularies between the ages of one-and-a-half and six years of age.

Learning Colour and Number Words

By four years of age, many children understand and are able to label red, blue, and yellow. They typically learn these colors before they learn green, brown, and orange. For example, three-year-old Max could tell his Nan that his boots were red but called his friend's boots red too even though they were orange.

Four-year-olds are also able to count to five and understand numbers up to three. They are able to count up to five objects accurately and to bring someone three of something when asked to do so. For example, when her mom said, "Bring three forks Avery", four-year-old Avery brought three forks to the table.

Closed-class Words

Children use a greater variety of closed-class words (i.e., prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs) between three and five years of age. Closed-class words make children's sentences easier to understand.


Prepositions are words added to sentences that describe a particular relationship between an object to the rest of the sentence. For example, in the sentence “The book is on the table,” the preposition on shows the relationship of an object (the book) in relationship to the rest of the sentence (the table). Three-year-old children use the prepositions in and on correctly. For example, three-year-old Avery was helping her mom bake muffins and said, “Put raisins in!” Children this age may also understand under. Three-year-old Max showed that he understood his Nan’s direction, “Look under the bed, Max” by peering under the bed. Children may also use gestures such as pointing to convey the meaning of prepositions that refer to location. For example, instead of telling her dad that the TV remote fell behind the couch, three-year-old Avery pointed behind the couch.

By 40 months of age, children understand next to and by four years of age, behind, in back of and in front of are also understood. Four-year-old children continue to have difficulty understanding above, below and at the bottom of. When his grandpa told four-year-old Max to put a bowl on the shelf below the plates, Max became confused and put the bowl on the plates. Children do not typically use up, down and off as prepositions until after four years of age.

Prepositions that describe basic relationships between objects in space (e.g., on, in, under) appear to be easier for children to understand than those that describe more complicated relationships (e.g., behind, beside, between, in front of). For example, to understand what to do when her mom asked her to put her shoes beside her backpack, Avery had to first identify the side of the backpack. When objects do not have readily identifiable fronts, backs, and sides (e.g., a ball), this type of task becomes more difficult for young children. For adults, the front of these kinds of objects is the surface nearest to the listener, the back is the opposite surface, and the side is to the left or right.

To use a preposition correctly, children must first understand its’ meaning. Researchers have found that from the time they are toddlers, children use two strategies when trying to understand unfamiliar prepositions referring to locations:

  1. If B is a container, A belongs inside it. For example, if Max's Nan said, "Put the block under the bucket," he will most likely put the block in the bucket instead of under it as asked.
  2. If B is a supporting surface, A belongs on it. For example, if Avery was asked to put a toy under the table, she will most likely put it on the table until she learns the meaning of the preposition under.

At this age, when listening to directions, the objects mentioned in the statement guide children’s actions more than the words used. In the Max’s example above, he put the block in the bucket as that is the common action when playing with blocks. But if Max was playing with a toy train bridge and a boat, he would likely put the boat under the bridge. Although it seems like he may understand under, Max has actually learned that the boats always go under bridges rather than on them.

When learning the meaning of prepositions that describe movement, preschoolers usually move objects closer together, interpreting all movement prepositions as meaning toward. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery responded to, “Move the cup off the table” by moving the cup further onto the table. Children understand and use prepositions that indicate movement toward (e.g., to) before their opposites (e.g., off).


Conjunctions are words that join phrases and sentences together. Between 25 and 40 months, children use the conjunctions and (I want the teddy and the doggie) and because. Because is often used alone in response to a question. For example, when three-year-old Avery’s mom asked her why she colored on the wall, Avery answered, “Because.” Because can also be attached to a single phrase as when children say, “Because I want to.” Young children mistakenly use because to describe the result of an action instead of the cause of the action. For example, when his dad asked, “How did you get hurt?” three-year-old Max answered, “Because I hurt my knee.” which was the result of him getting hurt not the cause. The cause of his hurt knee was falling down.


Pronouns are words used in place of nouns. They convey information about gender (e.g., he, she), objects without gender (e.g., it) and the number of people being referred to (e.g., me, we, us).

Pronouns are grouped according to where they are used in a sentence. Subjective pronouns (i.e., I, you, he, she, it, they, we) 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, English-speaking children learn subjective pronouns before objectives ones.

Pronouns are also grouped by function. Possessive pronouns (i.e., his, her, ours, yours) are used to show ownership. For example, in the sentence “She lost her hat,” her indicates who owned the hat. Reflexive pronouns (i.e., herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves) are used to refer an action back to the subject in the sentence. For example, in the sentence “John hurt himself,” himself refers to the subject of the sentence, John. Demonstrative pronouns (i.e., this, that) are used in place of an object name. For example, instead of saying “Do you like the shirt?” a person could say “Do you like that?” Demonstrative pronouns can be used only if the speaker is sure the listener knows the topic that is being talked about.

Age of Mastery

By three years of age, children have mastered the subjective pronouns I, you, he, she, it and we; the objective pronouns me and you; the possessive pronouns mine, my, your and yours; and the demonstrative pronouns this and that. For example, at three years of age, Avery complained to her mom, “She took my doll” when playing with a friend.

Between three and three-and-a-half, children begin using they, us, hers, his, them and her. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Max pointed to some other children at the park and said to his dad, “They are eating ice cream.”

Between three-and-a-half and four years, children may begin using its, our, ours, their, him, and theirs and the reflexive pronouns myself and yourself. For example, seeing another mom pick up her family’s picnic basket, three-and-half-year-old Avery said, “That’s our lunch.”

Four-year-old children may begin using herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves. For example, four-year-old Max showed that he was learning the difference between herself and himself when he came to his mom and said, “Sara hurt himself!”

By age five, most children have mastered the subjective, objective and possessive pronouns. Although children may have begun using reflexive pronouns during the three to five year age period (e.g., I did it myself), they do not achieve mastery of these forms until after age five. Similarly, mastery of plural demonstrative pronouns (e.g., these, those) is not achieved until after age five.

Children learning languages other than English may learn pronouns in a different order. For example, children learning Spanish and Italian may acquire objective pronouns before subjective ones.

Learning to Use Pronouns

When learning to use pronouns, children may follow a number of strategies:

  1. When unsure of what pronoun to use, use a noun. For example, two-and-a half-year-old Avery said, “Jose did it Mom” because she wasn’t sure if he or she was the right word to use instead of Jose.
  2. Avoid confusion by following a noun with a pronoun in the same sentence. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Max said, “My dad, he is at work.”
  3. Use the same rule across pronouns. For example, the objective pronoun her is produced as hers in its possessive form. Three-year-old Avery generalized this pattern to the possessive form of him and said, “Jackson brought hims truck today.”
  4. Use objective pronouns (i.e., me, you, him, her, it, us, them) for reflexive ones (i.e., herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.) For example, three-and-half-year-old Max said, “You can do it you.” instead of “You can do it yourself.”
  5. Simplify plural pronouns to singular ones. For example, three-year-old Avery used “he” instead of “they” to describe a group of boys running around at her daycare, saying, “He running around.’
  6. Use known pronouns in place of ones not learned. Children make mistakes because they can only use the pronouns they have already learned. For example, at three-and-a-half Max was trying to sort out subjective, objective, and possessive pronouns so he sometimes said, “Hims toy” or “He’s toy” instead of “His toy”. Other children may make similar errors with she, her, and hers. These types of errors may also be related to children’s ability to produce different speech sounds and speech sound combinations. For example, three-year-old Avery may have said “him ball” instead of “his ball” because she was not able to produce the /z/ sound in “his”.

Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs are also called “helping” verbs. They are joined to main verbs and give additional information about the main verb. Auxiliary verbs are the only verbs that can be made negative (e.g., I can’t go) or be placed before the subject to form questions (e.g., Can I go play?). These verbs are also used to avoid repeating what has already been said when responding. For example, when Avery’s caregiver asked “Who is hungry?” Avery responded, “I am”, avoiding repeating the word hungry.

Between three and four years of age, children begin using the auxiliary verbs will, could, would, should, shall, must, and might. These auxiliary verbs are also known as modals. Modals modify the verb that follows them and are used to express different moods and attitudes. For example, might expresses possibility (e.g., We might go to McDonalds.), while must expresses obligation (I must feed my dolly.). May expresses permission (e.g., You may go now.). Will expresses intent (e.g., I will tie my shoes.). Can expresses ability (e.g., I can climb the stairs.).

Between three and five years of age, children begin to use modals to express different meanings. Three-year-old children use modals in both questions and negatives. For example, three-year-old Avery used the modal can in her question, “Can I go outside?” Three-year-old Max used the modal will in a negative when he warned his Nan, “I will NOT go.”

Other auxiliary verbs used by three-year-old children include do, does, did and the copula (verb to be). For more information on the copula as an auxiliary verb, please refer to Contractible Auxiliary and Uncontractible Auxiliary. They also produce the negative forms of these auxiliaries like don’t, and doesn’t. Many children also use the auxiliary do and have by 42 months.

Preschoolers continue to make errors when using auxiliary verbs. They may use two auxiliary verbs in a single sentence. For example, when four-year-old Avery’s dad asked her who ate the last cookie, she exclaimed, “I didn’t did it!”

Producing New Words - Sounds and Syllable Structures

As their vocabularies grow, young children must learn to say new sounds and words with different syllable structures. Three-to-five-year-old children become able to produce some sequences of consonants called consonant blends or consonant clusters such as bl and tr. The accuracy of their speech has also improved, making them more easily understood by unfamiliar listeners. Their words sound increasingly the same as adult speech. Unfamiliar listeners may understand 75% of three-year-old children’s speech. By age four, they may understand 90%. Some preschoolers may lag behind others their age in speech development. Please refer to When to Be Concerned about Preschool Speech Development for more information. Parents should discuss any concerns with a speech-language pathologist. Information on how to contact a speech-language pathologist in your area is provided in How to Find a Speech-Language Pathologist.


By three years of age, English-speaking children are correctly producing all vowel sounds as well as the consonants p, m, h, n, w, b, k, g, and d. By four years of age, most children are producing the majority of the 24 English consonants correctly at least some of the time (p, b, t, d, k, g, f, v, s, z, h, sh, th, zh, j, ch, l, r, w, j, m, n, ng). As children continue to develop their speech skills, they produce these sounds correctly at the beginning, middle and ending of words.

Trends in Mastery of Sounds

Children tend to master stop sounds before fricatives. Stop sounds are those sounds that are produced when the airflow out of the mouth is stopped by the lips (p, b) or the tip (t, d) or back (k, g) of the tongue. In contrast, fricatives are produced when the airflow out of the mouth is restricted or pinched but not completely stopped by the lips and teeth (f, v), the teeth (s, z), and the back of the tongue (h). For example, children produce p correctly before they produce s correctly.

Children typically learn to say voiceless sounds before voiced sounds for sounds made in the same place in the mouth. For example, with sounds produced at the lips, children produce p correctly before they produce b. There is no vibration of the vocal folds during production of voiceless sounds (i.e., p, t, k, f, s, h, voiceless th (thing), sh). The vocal folds vibrate during sound production of voiced sounds (i.e., b, d, g, v, z, l, r, w, j, m, n, voiced th (that), zh, ch, ng and vowels).

It is important to note that children vary greatly in the ages at which they master different sounds. For example, by age three Avery was able to use the s sound accurately in most words but Max did not master s until after he was four years old. However, he was able to use the l sound before Avery.

Some sounds may not be mastered until after five years of age. These sounds may include voiceless th (as in think), voiced th (as in the), zh (as in measure), j (as in judge), ng (as in ring), z, l, r and v.

Learning about consonant clusters

Preschoolers may continue to have some difficulty saying groups of consonants, called consonant clusters. Children are generally able to produce some consonant clusters at either the beginning or ending of words by the time they are three years old. For example, three-year-old Max could say “spoon” clearly and three-year-old Avery could say “camp”.

Consonant clusters produced by four-year-old children include:

small tree black bump
snap pretty play ant
swim brick slide hand
stick dress


Some clusters will not be mastered until seven or eight years of age (e.g., str as in “street). For information on how children simplify consonant clusters, please refer to Simplifying Consonant Clusters.

Substituting One Sound for Another

Some sounds are easier to learn how to say than other sounds. Preschool children may substitute sounds they can say for those that they are still learning. A number of different types of substitutions have been identified in children’s speech. These include:

These types of substitutions are less frequent by age four.

Syllable Structures

By three years of age, children will say words containing the following syllable structures:

By four years of age, children may also include consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant (e.g., slips).

Many three-year-old children can clearly say words of no more than two syllables. For example, three-year-old Max clearly said “puppy” and “cupcake” but said “bu-fly” for butterfly.

By four years of age, most children can produce three-syllable words. For example, four-year-old Avery clearly said, “dinosaur” when watching TV.

By five years of age, children can produce words longer than three syllables. Five-year-old Max clearly said “helicopter” when showing his dad a picture in his library book.

Simplifying Syllable Structures

Even though preschoolers begin using a greater variety of syllable shapes and words with a greater number of syllables, they may continue to simplify syllables to make words easier to say. They may simplify longer words as well as consonant clusters within words.

Simplifying longer words

To simplify longer words, young children make them shorter by leaving out unstressed syllables. At first, children remove the unstressed syllables in any position in words. For example, at 24 months, Max said “way” for away and Avery said “elphant” for elephant. Eventually they will delete only the unstressed syllables at the beginning of words as Max did with away. Children may continue to delete unstressed syllables from words until age four.

Simplifying consonant clusters

Preschoolers continue to have some difficulty producing consonant clusters. To simplify words containing consonant clusters, they will most frequently leave out one of the consonants. For example, three-year-old Avery said “back” for black. Both the language being learned and the individual child will affect which consonant in the cluster is left out. Children learning English have some predictable patterns of simplifying consonant clusters. These patterns are as follows:

Producing Longer and More Complex Sentences

Three-year-old children's sentences average three words in length. By four years of age, this average has increased to four to five words. Preschoolers' sentences increase in length as they learn to use their expanding vocabularies to modify noun and verb phases. Their use of smaller units of meaning such as verb endings also increases. Finally, preschoolers increase both the length and complexity of their sentences through embedding and conjoining.

Modifying Noun Phrases

Children between the ages of three and five are able to expand noun phrases using modifiers such as adjectives (e.g., big, pretty), articles (e.g., a, the), demonstrative pronouns (e.g., this, that), and possessive pronouns (e.g., his, her). Initiators are another type of modifier used by preschoolers. An initiator is a word that comes before an article and places a limit on the noun such as only, just, all, and both. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery used an initiator when she said, “I want all the cookies.”

Three- to five-year-old children usually use only one modifier before a noun as four-year-old Max did when he said, “That car.” Sometimes preschoolers may use both an article and adjective to expand a noun phrase. For example, in the same play session Max said, “The big truck.” Preschoolers are still learning the rules for ordering multiple modifiers in phrases. Because of this new learning, some of their phrases may sound strange to adults. For example, four-year-old Avery said, “My green dirty coat.” She did not know that the correct order is “My dirty green coat.”

Using Adjectives

In order to use adjectives to modify noun phrases, children must first understand their meaning. Preschoolers use the same strategies as toddlers when learning to use adjectives. Researchers have found that children understand general terms that describe shape or size (e.g., big/little) before more specific terms (e.g., tall/short). Within these pairs, children first understand the adjective that stands for “more” of the dimension. So children will understand “big” and “tall” before the other halves of the pairs, “little” and short.”) Children also use context to help them understand adjectives that describe shape or size. For example, to understand big and little, children may compare two objects to determine which one is the big one. A final strategy is to judge whether an object is an appropriate size for an activity. For example, three-year-old Avery wanted to make a bead necklace and had to decide whether to use the long or short string. She quickly learned that the necklace she made with the short string didn’t fit around her neck. Next time, when her mom said to use the long string, Avery knew exactly which one to choose. Many exposures to adjectives in different contexts are needed for children to learn the meaning of these words. Once adjectives are understood, children are ready to expand noun phrases with them (e.g., Big black dog).

Using Post-Modifiers

Preschoolers may also use post-modifiers to expand noun phrases. Post-modifiers follow nouns. For example, a prepositional phrase, which is a preposition followed by a noun phrase such as “in the box,” is one kind of post-modifier. Children first use short prepositional phrases as post-modifiers between three and three-and-a-half. Three-year-old Max used a prepositional phrase to describe which hippo he was talking about at the zoo, saying, “The hippo in the mud.” Preschoolers become increasingly better at using post-noun modifiers between four and five years of age. For more information, please refer to Embedding. Development of this skill also helps them to tell more detailed and descriptive stories.

Modifying Verb Phrases

Verb phrases are groups of words that function as verbs in sentences. In the sentence “The coat is old and red,” is old and red is a verb phrase. Between three and five years of age, verb phrases continue to increase in complexity through the use of auxiliary verbs. For more information on the development of auxiliary verbs, please refer to Auxiliary Verbs.

Mastery of verb tenses such as regular past tense (e.g., walked, sipped), irregular past tense (e.g., ran, drank) and third person singular (e.g., runs, draws) results in sentences that are more like those spoken by adults. By age five, children are able to use the verb to be as both a main verb (e.g., She is happy.) and as an auxiliary verb (e.g., She is running.).

Preschoolers may also produce sentences that contain more than one verb. For example, four-year-old Max came in from outside, he told his mom, “I runned and falled!” and then he said, “I yelled then Daddy came.” For more information on how children produce sentences containing more than one verb, please refer to Creating Complex Sentences.

Using Grammatical Elements

Another way children increase the length of their sentences is by using grammatical elements known as 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., unhappy) and suffixes that can be added to the ending of words (e.g., quickly). Some bound morphemes can only be added to nouns, as with the possessive –s (e.g., Katy’s) and plural –s (e.g., cats), while others can only be added to verbs as with tense markers (e.g., walked). Children begin using bound morphemes between 27 and 30 months. Mastery of many bound morphemes occurs between the ages of three and five years.

In the early 1970s, a researcher named Roger Brown studied how children begin to use morphemes. He identified fourteen morphemes which begin to appear in the speech of English-speaking toddlers between 27 and 30 months of age and studied how children learn to use them correctly over time. He found that although children begin to use many morphemes as toddlers, 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 across languages. For example, in Egyptian Arabic, marking plurals is very complex. As a result, speakers learning this language may not use all plural markers correctly until their teenage years.

Brown's Fourteen Morphemes

Present progressive -ing

Mastery of this morpheme ranges between 19 and 28 months. For more information, please refer to Present progressive –ing (25-36 months).

In and on

In and on were the next two morphemes studied by Brown. They are fully mastered by 30 months. For more information, please refer to In and On (25-36 months).

Regular plural -s

The plural –s is added to nouns to talk about more than one person or object (e.g., “More dogs”). Children typically master plural –s between 27 to 33 months. For more information, please refer to Regular plural –s (25-36 months).

Irregular past tense

The past tense morpheme is added to verbs to talk about an action or event that is finished or happened at an earlier time. For most verbs, past tense verb is marked by adding –ed (e.g., walked, carried); however, there are some verbs called irregular verbs that have special past tense forms which must be memorized. Examples include: ate, drank, ran, hit, hurt, went, saw, and gave.

Children may overextend irregular forms across other irregular past tense verbs. For example, four-year-old Max overgeneralized his knowledge of the irregular past tense form sang, when he said, “I brang my backpack.” instead of “I brought my backpack.” Children may also overextend the regular past tense –ed to irregular past tense verbs. Four-year-old Avery did this when she said, ““I ated all my snack.”

Children master many irregular past tense forms between 25 and 46 months. However, children continue learning irregular past tense verb forms beyond the preschool years.


The possessive –s morpheme is added to nouns to show ownership. Possessive nouns are formed by adding an “s” to the end of the noun. For example, in “Daddy’s hat,” the s indicates that Daddy is the owner of the hat. At first, toddlers showed possession by word order and stress. For example, two-year-old Avery picked up her Dad’s hat and said, “Daddy hat”. Children begin learning the possessive –s morpheme between 27 and 30 months. At first, they use this morpheme with nouns that refer to people or animals. For example, 28-month-old Max pointed to his mom’s car and said, “Mommy’s.” Preschoolers tend to 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). The age range for children’s mastery of the possessive is between 26 to 40 months.

Uncontractible copula

When the verb to be (i.e., am, is, are, was and were) is the main verb in a sentence, it is called the copula. The copula may be followed by a noun (e.g., He is Canadian.), adjective (e.g., He is thin.), adverb (e.g., He is late) or prepositional phrase (e.g., He is in the car.). Children first master the copula in sentences where it is uncontractible. This means that it is not grammatically correct to shorten or contract the copula. There are several instances where this is the case:

  1. When using the copula – are (e.g., The books are heavy cannot be contracted to The books’re heavy.)
  2. When the copula is the first or last word in a question (e.g., Is he sick? cannot be contracted and neither can “He is?”)
  3. 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 is cannot be contracted to “Daddy’s.”)
  4. In negative sentences in which not is already shortened (e.g., The boy isn’t sick cannot be contracted further.)
  5. In past tense (e.g., The boy was sick cannot be contracted.)

Children typically master the uncontractible copula between 27 and 39 months. For example, when walking through the snow with her mom three-year-old Avery said, "My boots are stuck." Some may continue to have difficulty with the uncontractible copula until they are nearly four years old.


Articles come before nouns in sentences. English has two types of articles: indefinite (a, an) and definite (the). The indefinite article a is used to refer to non-specific nouns and information that is not known to the listener. The definite article the is used to refer to specific nouns and information that is shared between speaker and listener. For example, adults may start a conversation about clothes by saying “I went to buy a shirt” (i.e., a shirt refers to a non-specific shirt and that the speaker is talking about information not known to the listener) and continue it with “The shirt I liked best was the green and blue striped” (i.e., the is used because shirt now refers to a specific one and information is now shared between speaker and listener).

Three-year-old children may overuse the definite article the, which may be related to their developing understanding of known versus unknown information shared between speakers and listeners. For example, when playing trucks with his dad, three-year-old Max turned to him and said, “Give me the truck.” His dad had no way of knowing which truck Max wanted. The definite article the may continue to be overused into the school years.

Regular past

As described in Irregular past tense, the past tense morpheme is added to verbs to talk about an action or event that is finished or happened at an earlier time. Most past tense verbs are marked by adding –ed as in walked and climbed. At three years of age, children may overgeneralize the -ed ending to irregular past-tense verbs. Three-year-old Avery did this when she announced, “I comed inside Mom!” instead of “I came inside Mom!” Regular past tense is mastered between 26 and 48 months.

Third person singular marker: Regular and irregular

Third person singular is marked by adding –s to the end of regular verbs when talking about a person other than the speaker or listener. For example, talking about a character on TV, three-year-old Max said, “Diego runs!” The age of mastery for this regular form of third person singular ranges between 26 and 46 months.

There are a few English verbs that mark third person singular irregularly. The third person singular form of do is does. For example, four-year-old Avery said, “Tasha does ballet.” The third personal singular form of have is has. For example, five-year-old Max said, “He has a dog.” Children may continue to have difficulty with irregular forms of third person singular beyond the age of 47 months.

Uncontractible auxiliary

The verb to be can be used as an auxiliary or helping verb (e.g., He was running). Auxiliary or helping verbs add information to the main verb.

Children first master the auxiliary form of the verb to be 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:

  1. When it is past tense (e.g., She was running. cannot be shortened to She’s running.)
  2. When it is the first or last word in a sentence (e.g., Is she coming? cannot be shortened. The response She is. cannot be shortened to She’s.)
  3. In negative sentences when not is already contracted (e.g., She isn’t running. cannot be contracted further.)
  4. 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 ranges between 29 and 48 months. For example, when his mom asked him, "Who is coming? 3-year-old Max said, "Grandma's is!"

Contractible copula

As described in the Incontractible copula section, when the verb to be, such as is, are, and am, is used as the main verb in the sentence, it is called the copula. Unlike the uncontractible copula, there are sentences in which the copula can be shortened or contracted. For example, Doggie is big can be shortened to Doggie’s big and That boy is funny can be shortened to That boy’s funny.

Children master the contractible copula between the ages of 29 and 49 months.

As the contracted form is short and not emphasized when speaking, listeners may not recognize when children use the contractible copula incorrectly. For example, talking quickly, three-year-old Avery said, “Sara’s baby tired” instead of “Sara’s baby’s tired” but no one noticed her mistake.

Contractible auxiliary

The contractible auxiliary refers to the verb to be used as an auxiliary or helping verb in sentences that it can be shortened or contracted. For example, three-year-old Max shortened the sentence Daddy is drinking juice to “Daddy’s drinking juice.” Children master the contracted form of is and are forms before am. Children typically master use of the contractible auxiliary between the ages of 30 and 50 months.

Suffixes - -er and -est

Three- to five-year-old children understand and use other bound morphemes in addition to the fourteen first identified by Roger Brown. They begin to learn how suffixes, or word endings such as –er and –est, can be used to change word meanings. The word ending –est is called the superlative form. It is added to adjectives to indicate comparisons among more than two items, (e.g., biggest, fastest, tallest). Children begin using the superlative –est around age three-and-a-half. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Max told his Nan, “I want the biggest bear.” The word ending –er is called the comparative form and is added to adjectives to compare two objects or actions (e.g., bigger, faster, taller). The comparative form develops later, around age five. For example, until Avery was five years old she was not able to respond correctly when her mom said, “Use a bigger plate please.”

Children understand –er and –est suffixes before they are able to use them in their own speech. In order to use these forms correctly, children must learn the following rules:

While learning these rules, children may mark the comparative or superlative twice as four-year-old Avery did when she said, “The puppy was the most softest ever.”

There are exceptions to these rules. For example, when used as a comparison good becomes better not gooder and when used as a superlative good becomes best not goodest (e.g., This picture is good. That picture is better. The other picture is best.). Understanding of exceptions continues into adulthood.

Three- to five-year-old children also learn that the suffix –er can be added to some verbs to produce nouns. For example, -er can be added to bake to create baker. Between two and three years of age, children typically created a noun form by adding man to the verb. For example, at two-and-a-half Max called his jogging neighbor “runningman.” By age five, children are usually able to understand and use the -er suffix instead. When he was five, Max called his neighbor a “runner.”


Embedding is one of the most important grammatical developments for children between 35 and 40 months. When embedding, children add more information about subject(s) or object(s) in their sentences. Researchers have classified the different types of information that is added to sentences. Some of the most common types used by preschoolers are object complementation clauses, wh-clauses, and multiple embeddings.

Object Complementation Clauses

This is the earliest developing type of complex sentence used by preschoolers. Object complements follow particular verbs, act like nouns in a sentence, and are introduced by “that.” For example, “I think that I know him.” Object complement clauses most frequently follow the verb think. By 41 and 46 months, children may omit “that” as shown by three-and-a-half-year-old Avery when she said, “I think I want pizza” instead of “I think that I want pizza.”

Wh- Clauses

In this case children add information that is introduced with a wh- word (what, where, when, who, which, how, why). For example, at the ice cream store four-year-old Max told his dad, “I want what she had.” When preschoolers use wh- clauses what is the most frequently used wh- word. Wh- clauses emerges between the ages of 35 and 50 months.

Multiple Embeddings

By four years of age, children may begin saying sentences with multiple embeddings. For example, four-year-old Avery’s sentence “I think I want to eat the cake” has both Object Complement and an Infinite embedded. Multiple embeddings are rare even in the school years.


Conjoining occurs when children join two sentences together. Children first use the conjunction and to conjoin sentences, as three-and-half-year-old Max did when he told his dad, “Mom threw the ball and I ran to catch it.” Children may begin conjoining sentences between the ages of 35 and 40 months. However, most children do not begin such conjoining until they are between the ages of 41 and 46 months.

Children begin using if to conjoin between the ages of 41 and 46 months. For example, before going outside to play, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery said, “I’ll wear my hat if it’s cold.” Other conjunctions used to conjoin, including because, so, but and when usually emerge after 46 months. And is the most commonly used conjunction even when children are school-aged.

Meanings Expressed by Conjoining

When children first conjoin sentences each sentence keeps a separate meaning. For example, in the sentence “That boy is going home and I am having lunch,” the meaning of “That boy is going home” and “I am having lunch” stays the same as if they were separate.

Next, children use conjoining to add information where the second sentence happened after the first sentence in time. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery said, “I drinked my juice and I played toys” meaning that first she drank her juice and then she played with her toys. In this case, and is understood as then.

Children then learn to add information where there is a causal relationship between the two sentences. For example, four-year-old Max said, “I drank my juice and I’m not thirsty.” In this case, and is interpreted as because.

Children also conjoin two sentences to show a contrast. For example, when talking about her blocks, four-year-old Avery said, “This is big and that is little.”

Finally, children may use conjoining to describe or add more detail to the first sentence. Four-year-old Max did this when he told his mom, “This is a bottle and babies drink from it.”

When conjoining two sentences about the same subject children begin deleting the common elements from the second sentence. For example, the sentences “The puppy is running” and “The puppy is jumping” could be joined to create “The puppy is running and jumping” deleting the common elements The puppy is from the second sentence.

Embedding and Conjoining in the Same Sentence

Four-year-old children begin to embed and conjoin within the same sentence like Avery when she said, “I want to jump and Tommy doesn’t,” and Max when he said, “I ate gummy bears and Joey ate the ones that were sharks.”

Developing Different Sentence Forms

Between three and five years of age, children continue to develop more adult-like sentence structures for negatives, questions, and declaratives. By the time they are five years old; most children are producing all of the basic English sentence types.

Negative Sentences

Mastering auxiliary verbs, the copula and contractions allow preschool children to produce negative sentences that are more adult like as follows:

Children continue to learn about negation beyond five years of age. For example, they do not produce negative questions until after five years of age (e.g., Why don’t penguins fly?).


Preschoolers become increasingly able to ask a variety of questions types. These include yes/no, wh-, and tag questions.

Yes/no questions

These are questions that can be answered with yes or no. For example, wondering why her friend was putting on her coat, three-year-old Avery asked her mom, “Is she going home?” In order to ask yes/no questions children must figure out how to changing word order to form questions. For example changing the word order of “I can watch TV,” to “Can I watch TV?” creates a yes/no question.

Wh- Questions

Preschool children typically use what, where, and who questions (e.g., “What Daddy doing?” “Where is Mommy going?”) before why, when, and how questions. What, where and who questions are both easier to understand and easier to answer because children may give a single word answer. For example, when 3-year-old Max was asked, “Where is Daddy?” he simply answered, “Working.”

To ask why, when and how questions, children must understand more abstract concepts, such as time and cause-and-effect. These questions also need a full sentence response. For example, when 4-year-old Avery was asked, “How did you hurt your knee?” she explained, “I fell down.”

Young children are more successful when responding to questions about objects, people and events in the present. As they are still developing their understanding of the concepts of past and future, four-year-old children have difficulty answering when and how questions. For example, four-year-old Max looked puzzled and said, “Yesterday?” when his Dad asked him “When did we go to the zoo?”

Tag Questions

Tag questions are produced when a short tag such as eh, isn’t it, or huh is added to the end of a declarative or imperative sentence. Children begin using tag questions between three-and-a-half and four years of age. Four-year-old Avery used a tag question when she asked her Dad, “I want cookies, okay?” Children produce simple tags, such as huh and eh, before they produce full adult tags such as don’t you and isn’t it. Children do not typically use full adult tags until they are school-aged. The frequency of tag questions varies among English-speaking populations. In American English, tag questions are used infrequently. In Canadian English, tag questions with eh may be used relatively frequently.

Declarative Sentences

Declarative sentences state an idea (e.g., Mommy is pretty.) Because three-year-old children have learned closed-class words such as auxiliary verbs and prepositions, they are able to produce more complex declarative sentences. For example, three-year-old Max told his Nan, "Daddy is cooking burgers." Three-year-old Avery said, "Grandma will be happy" when she saw her present.

There are two types of declarative sentences:

Children’s understanding of these sentence types develops over time. While young preschoolers understand active sentences such as “The dog is chasing the cat” they do not understand the sentence when it is said in the passive form “The cat was chased by the dog.” Children may think that the cat was chasing the dog, which is incorrect. Children do not typically understand passive sentences until they are 48 months or older.

Developing Storytelling Abilities

A story or narrative is a series of sentences that provides information about events or experiences (real or made-up) in an orderly sequence. Young children are exposed to four universal types of narratives: recounts, accounts, eventcasts, and fictional stories:

The amount of exposure to each type varies greatly. Children begin producing narratives from one or more of these types in the 25 to 36 month age period.

Strategies for Organizing Stories: Centering and Chaining

Researchers have found that young children follow two strategies when organizing their stories: centering and chaining. With centering, children create a story around a central topic. Each object, action or event included in the story relates to the topic but the listener may have difficulty recognizing the relationship. The following story told by three-year-old Avery about her day at the park provides an example of centering: "I ate a burger (mimed eating). Mommy threw the ball, like this (demonstrated action). Daddy took me swimming (moved hands, acted silly). I had chips."

With chaining, each object, action, or event included in the story have one or more features in common and each event in the story builds on the one before it. By three years of age, children may be using both centering and chaining strategies to organize their stories.

The following stories are examples of chaining. Four-year-old Max told a story about going to a parade: "We went to a parade. There were horses and trucks. The drums and horns were loud. There was a clown in a little car. I got a balloon. And we went home." Five-year-old Avery told a story about going to the movies with her mom: "Mommy took me to the movies. We saw "Cars." There was a red race car. He was fast. There was a tow truck. He was silly. And I got some popcorn. And we went home."

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent Narrative: Language 37 - 60 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