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

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Introduction to Language 3 - 5 Years - Increasingly Adult-like 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. The size of their receptive and expressive vocabularies grows. Increased use of closed-class words and grammatical morphemes allows production of longer and more complex sentence structures in the preschool period. Children's phonological systems are further refined as they 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

Preschoolers' receptive and expressive vocabularies continue to expand as they learn more nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They also begin to understand and use more closed-class words such as prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs. Their growing vocabularies allow them to express themselves more clearly.

Vocabulary Growth

By age three, children have developed expressive vocabularies of between 900 and 1000 words (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Owens, 2001). By the time they are four years old, children’s vocabularies are between 1500 and 1600 words (Owens, 2001). By five years of age, children’s expressive vocabularies may have increased to 5000 words (Weitzman, 1992). Children add between five and nine words a day to their vocabularies between the ages of one-and-a-half and six years of age (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001).

Learning Colour and Number Vocabulary

By four years of age, children understand and are able to label primary colors (Owens, 2001). Children learn red, blue and yellow before they learn green, brown and orange. Four-year-olds are also able to count to five and understand numbers up to three. They will be able to count up to five objects accurately and will be able to bring someone three of something when asked to do so.

Closed-class Words

Closed-class words such as prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, articles and auxiliary verbs make children's utterances more grammatical, easier to understand, and longer. Children begin using a greater variety of closed-class words between three and five years of age.


Three-year-old children use the prepositions in and on correctly (Hulit & Howard, 2001). They may also understand under. At this age, children may also use gestures to convey the meaning of locational prepositions (e.g., pointing) (Owens, 2001). By 40 months of age, children understand next to. The locational prepositions behind, in back of and in front of are understood by four years of age. Four-year-old children continue to have difficulty understanding above, below and at the bottom of. Children do not use up, down and off as prepositions until after four years of age.

Prepositions that describe topographical relations (e.g., on, in, under) appear to be easier for children to understand than those that describe dimensional relations (e.g., behind, beside, between, in front of). To understand dimensional prepositions, children must consider the relation of one object to the spatial orientation of another object (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). For example, to understand in front of correctly, a child must be able to identify the relationship between the front and the back of an object and to the position of the speaker. For adults, in front of is the surface nearest to the listener, while in back of is the opposite surface. When objects do not have readily identifiable fronts and backs (e.g., a ball), this task becomes more difficult for children.

To correctly use a preposition, children must first understand its’ meaning. Children use two strategies when trying to understand more complex prepositions such as above, below and in front of (Owens, 2001). These strategies are as follows: “Rule 1: If B is a container, A belongs inside it. Rule 2: If B is a supporting surface, A belongs on it” (Owens, 2001, p. 298). Children following these strategies will use the objects mentioned, as opposed to the preposition itself to interpret utterances. Word order and context are also used to understand prepositions.

Children may use the following strategy when interpreting movement prepositions: “If A and B are related to each other in space, they should be touching” (Owens, 2001, p. 298). As a result, children may interpret movement prepositions as meaning toward. For example, children may respond to the utterance, “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). For more information on prepositions, please refer to Modifying Noun Phrases.


Conjunctions are words used to connect phrases and clauses. Between 25 and 40 months, children begin to use the conjunctions and and because (Owens, 2001) to join phrases and clauses. And is the most frequently used conjunctive form for children in the three- to five-year age range. Because is used alone in response to a question or attached to a single clause (e.g., “Because I want to”). At this age, children do not generally use because to indicate causation but rather to describe a result. For example, in response to the question “How did you get hurt?”, children may respond, “Because I hurt my knee.” For more information on connecting phrases and clauses, please refer to Creating Complex Sentences.


Pronouns are words used in place of nouns and convey information about gender (or lack thereof) and number of referents (Hulit & Howard, 2001). Pronouns may be subjective (i.e., I, you, he, she, it, we, they), objective (i.e., me, you, him, her, it, us, them), demonstrative (i.e., this, that, these, those), possessive (i.e., mine, my, your(s), hers, his, its, ours, their(s)) or reflexive (i.e., myself, yourself, himself, herself, themselves, itself, ourselves, yourselves).

Age of Mastery

Generally, children learning English acquire subjective pronouns before objective ones. 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 (Owens, 2001).

Between three and three-and-a-half, children begin using they, us, hers, his, them and her (Owens, 2001). Between three-and-a-half and four years, children may begin using its, our, ours, him, their, and theirs and the reflexive pronouns myself and yourself (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Four-year-old children may begin using herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves (Owens, 2001). By age five, children have mastered subjective, objective and possessive pronouns. Although children may have begun using reflexive pronouns during the three to five year 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.

Learning to use Pronouns

Children may follow a number of strategies when learning to use pronouns (Owens, 2001). Their first strategy is to use a noun when unsure of what pronoun to use. To avoid confusion, preschoolers may use pronominal apposition, in which they use a noun and follow it with a pronoun. For example, children may say, “My sister, she is at school.” When using pronouns, children may look for regularity in structure amongst different pronoun types. For example, the objective pronoun her is produced as hers in its possessive form. Preschoolers may generalize this pattern to him, producing the incorrect possessive form hims. They may also simplify reflexive pronouns to objective forms (e.g., producing yourself as you) and plural pronouns to singular ones (e.g., producing he for they). Finally, children may use learned pronoun forms in place of unlearned ones. For example, preschoolers may say, “It them toy,” substituting an objective pronoun for a possessive one. They may produce incorrect forms such as “Hes toy” and “Hims toy” instead of “His toy.” Similar errors may be made with she, her, and hers. These types of errors may also be related to articulatory development (ability to correctly product the /z/ phoneme) and morphological development (mastery of the possessive marker –s).

It is important to note that order of pronoun acquisition may be different for children learning languages other than English (Owens, 2001). For example, children learning Spanish and Italian may acquire objective pronouns before subjective ones. For more information on pronouns, please refer to Developing Deixis.

Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs are added to main verbs (e.g., Avery is running) and provide additional information about action or state of the main verb. Auxiliary verbs are the only verbs that can be attached to not (e.g., I can’t go) or be inverted with the subject to form questions (e.g., Can I go play?) (Owens, 2001). Auxiliaries are also used to avoid repetition in responses and for emphasis. For example, children may avoid repetition by responding “I am” to the question “Who is hungry?”

Auxiliary verbs used by preschool children include can, do, does, did and the copula - the verb “to be” (Hulit & Howard, 2001). They are also producing the negative forms of these auxiliaries.

Between three and four years of age, children begin using the auxiliary verbs can, will, could, would, should, must and might (Owens, 2001). These auxiliary verbs are also known as modals. Modals modify the verb they precede and are used to express different moods and attitudes. For example, might expresses possibility, while must expresses obligation. Other attitudes expressed by modals include permission (e.g., may), intent (e.g., will), and ability (e.g., can). Prior to age three, children had a limited understanding of the relationship between modals and the attitudes they express. Between three and five years of age, children begin to use modals to express different meanings (Hulit & Howard, 2001). Three-year-old children use modals in both interrogatives and negatives. Generally, preschoolers continue to make errors when using auxiliary verbs (Hulit & Howard, 2001). For example, they may use two auxiliary verbs in a single utterance as in “I didn’t did it.” For more information on auxiliary verbs, please refer to Present Progressive –ing, Uncontractable Auxiliary and Contractible Auxiliary.

Producing New Words - Sounds and Syllable Structures

As their vocabularies grow, young children are challenged to produce new sounds and words with different syllable structures. Three- to five-year-old children are able to sequence consonants both within and across syllables. Their articulatory accuracy also improves, making their speech more understandable to unfamiliar listeners. Words sound increasingly adult-like. They continue to simplify the phonological and/or syllabic structures of new words in order to make them easier to produce.


By three years of age, children are correctly producing all vowel sounds as well as the consonants /p, m, h, n, w, b, k, g,/ and /d/ (Owens, 2001). By four years of age, most children are producing the majority of the 24 English consonants correctly at least some of the time (stops: /p, b, t, d, k, g/; fricatives: /f, v, s, z, h/, sh, th (as in “the” and “math”), zh; affricates: j and ch; liquids: /l ,r/; glides: /w, j/; nasals: /m, n/, ng) (Hulit & Howard, 2001). As children continue to develop their articulatory abilities, their ability to produce consonant sounds correctly in all contexts (i.e., beginning, middle and ending of words) increases.

Trends in Mastery of Sounds

Research into the ages at which children acquire consonants has yielded mixed results. However, the following general conclusions can be drawn. Children master stops before fricatives. For example, children produce /p/ correctly before they produce /s/. Secondly, children tend to master production of voiceless sounds before voiced sounds for sounds produced at the same place of articulation. For example, children will master production of /s/ before they master /z/. During production of voiced sounds (i.e., /b, d, g, v, z, l, r, w, j, m, n/, voiced th, zh, ch, ng and vowels), the vocal folds vibrate. During production of voiceless sounds (i.e., /p, t, k, f, s, h,/, sh, voiceless th), there is no vibration of the vocal folds. Some sounds may not be mastered until after five years of age. These sounds may include voiced and voiceless th (as in the and think, respectively), zh (as in measure), j (as in judge), ng, /z/, /l/, /r/ and /v/. It is important to note that there is a great deal of individual variation in the ages at which children master sounds.

Learning About Consonant Clusters

Preschoolers continue to have difficulty producing consonant clusters (Owens, 2001). In fact, some clusters will not be acquired until seven or eight years of age. Consonant clusters produced by four-year-old children include /s/ + nasal (e.g., snap), /s/ + approximant (e.g., swim), /s/ + stop (e.g., skip), stop + /l/ or /r/ (e.g., slide), and nasal + stop in final position (e.g., bump). For information on how children simplify consonant clusters, please refer to Simplifying Consonant Clusters.

During this time, children’s speech becomes increasingly easy for listeners to understand. Unfamiliar listeners may understand 75% of three-year-old children’s speech (Apel & Masterson, 2001). By age four, this percentage increases to 90%.

Substituting One Sound for Another

As some sounds (e.g., /t, d, p, b, m, n, w/) are easier to produce than others (e.g., /k, g, s, z, j, r, l/, sh, ch), children may continue to substitute sounds they can produce for those that they are still learning (Apel & Masterson, 2001). A number of different types of substitutions have been identified in children’s speech (Owens, 2001). Stopping is a substitution pattern in which a fricative or affricate is substituted with a stop (e.g., “do” for “shoe”). Substitution of /d/ for voiced th may continue into the school years. Stopping occurs most commonly on initial sounds in words. Preschoolers may also “stop” nasal sounds (e.g., “sab” for “Sam”). Fronting is a substitution process in which velars (e.g., /k, g/, ng) and the palatal sh are replaced with alveolars (e.g., /t, d, n, s/). For example, preschoolers may produce “cat” as “tat” and “show” as “sew.” Fronting has been identified in 23% of three-year-old children. This percentage decreases to 3.5% by age four-and-a-half. Gliding is a substitution process in which liquids are replaced with glides (e.g., “wock” for “rock”). Gliding may persist into the school years. Finally, children may substitute vowels for syllabic nasals or liquids (e.g., “fawa” for “flower”). These processes are less frequent by age four.

Assimilation is another process that has been identified in children’s word productions. In assimilation, children simplify production of a word by making one sound in the word more like another sound in the word (Owens, 2001). There are two types of assimilation: contiguous and discontiguous. Contiguous assimilation occurs when a sound immediately before or after another sound in the word is simplified (e.g., “dop” for “top” where the voicing of the vowel results in voicing of the preceding consonant). Discontiguous assimilation refers to changes in sounds that are not immediate neighbours (e.g., “doddie” for “doggie” or “goggie” for “doggie”). Backing is the most common type of noncontiguous assimilation. Backing occurs when a sound in the word is changed to be similar to a sound in the word that is produced toward the back of the oral cavity (e.g., “cake” for “take”) (Owens, 2001). These assimilation processes become less frequent by age four.

Syllable Structures

Between three and five years of age, children produce a greater variety of syllables shapes and words that have a greater number of syllables. However, children may continue to simplify syllable structures to make words easier to produce.

Syllable Shapes

By three years of age, children will produce words containing the following syllable structures: consonant-vowel, vowel-consonant, consonant-vowel-consonant, 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). By four years of age, children may also produce the following syllable structure: consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant (e.g., trucks).

Three-year-old children produce words with one or two syllables. By four years of age, they can produce words containing three syllables. By five years of age, children can be produce words longer than three syllables.

Simplifying Syllable Structures

To simplify the syllable structure of words preschoolers use two strategies: simplifying the number of syllables in words and simplifying consonant clusters within words.

Simplifying number of syllables

To simplify production of multisyllabic words, young children may delete unstressed syllables, for example, producing “elephant” as “elphant”(Owens, 2001). Initially, children will delete an unstressed syllables that occurs in any position in the word. Eventually, they will only delete a syllable in the initial word position (e.g., “away” as “way”). Unstressed syllable deletion may continue until four years of age.

Simplifying consonant clusters

Preschoolers continue to have some difficulty producing consonant clusters. They may simplify words by simplifying consonant clusters in single or multisyllabic words (Owens, 2001). The most frequent simplification process is the deletion of a consonant from the cluster. The consonant that is deleted is affected by both the language being learned and the individual child. For children learning English, some predictable patterns include deletion of /s/ in /s/ + stop clusters (e.g., “pill” for “spill”), deletion of the liquid (/l, r/) or glide (/w/) in stop/fricative + liquid/glide clusters (e.g., ““teet” for “tweet”, “fog” for “frog” ), and deletion of the nasal in fricative + nasal clusters (e.g., “bup” for “bump”). Another simplification process involves the insertion of a vowel in the middle of the cluster (e.g., “buloo” for “blue”). Children are generally able to produce some consonant clusters at either the beginning or end of words by the time they are three years old. However, some clusters are not acquired until seven or eight years of age (e.g., /s/ + stop + glide, as in “street”).

Producing Longer Utterances

While 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 (Owens, 2001). With their growing vocabularies, preschoolers expand noun and verb phrases. As well, they are mastering smaller units of meaning known as morphemes which also leads to an increase in the length and complexity of their utterances. Preschoolers also increase the length of their utterances through embedding and/or conjoining clauses. For more information on these processes, please refer to Creating Complex Sentences.

Modifying Noun Phrases

Unlike two-year-olds, children between the ages of three and five are able to modify noun phrases using initiators and post-modifiers, in addition to adjectives, articles, demonstrative pronouns and possessive pronouns. Hulit & Howard (2001) define an initiator as a word that comes before an article and limits the noun. Initiators include words such as only, just, all and both. Three- to five-year-old children usually use only one modifier (i.e., adjective, article, pronoun, initiator) before a noun (e.g., That car). If children use more than one modifier in a noun phrase, the two modifiers will be an article and an adjective (e.g., The big truck). Preschoolers are still learning the rules for ordering multiple modifiers in phrases. For example, they must learn that in order to use the modifiers green, dirty, and my in front of the noun coat, 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 dimensional terms (e.g., big/little) before more specific terms (e.g., tall/short) (Hulit & Howard, 2001). Dimensional pairs are learned asymmetrically with the concept representing ‘more’ of the particular dimension is acquired first. For example, for the pairs big-little and tall-short, children understand big and tall before little and short. Children also use context to interpret dimensional terms (Owens, 2001). For example, to interpret big and little, children may compare two objects or judge whether an object is an appropriate size for the activity they are doing. Once understood, children will modify noun phrases with dimensional terms (e.g., Big doggie).

Using Post-Modifiers

Post-modifiers follow the noun. Three to five-year-old children use prepositional phrases (e.g., “The dog at the pet store”) and subordinate clauses (e.g., “The man who fell.”) as post-modifiers. Children first use short prepositional phrases as post-modifiers between three and three-and-a-half (Owens, 2001). They become increasingly proficient at using post-noun modifiers between four and five years of age. Development of this skill aids in the creation of more detailed and descriptive narratives.

Modifying Verb Phrases

Between three and five years of age, verb phrases continue to increase in complexity. Mastery of bound morphemes for verb tense (e.g., regular and irregular past tense, third person singular) results in more adult-like utterances (Hulit & Howard, 2001). By age five, children are able to use the verb “to be” as both a main and auxiliary verb. Preschoolers may also produce sentences that contain more than one main verb (Apel & Masterson, 2001). Initially, this is accomplished by joining clauses with and or then (e.g., I runned and falled, She yelled then I shut my ears). For more information on this process, please refer to Conjoining.

Using Grammatical Elements

Children’s utterances also increase in length and grammatical complexity through the use of morphemes (e.g., nouns, verbs, adjectives). 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 an open-class word to be meaningful (Hulit & Howard, 2001). Bound morphemes include prefixes (e.g., “un-”), suffixes (e.g., “-ly), the possessive –‘s, plural –s, and verb markers (e.g., -ed). Children begin using bound morphemes between 27 and 30 months. They achieve mastery of many bound morphemes between the ages of three and five years.

Brown's Fourteen Morphemes

Brown (1973) identified fourteen morphemes that appear in the speech of toddlers and preschoolers. These morphemes are also described in Language 25 – 36 months. The fourteen morphemes share several characteristics (Owens, 2001). First, these morphemes are phonetically minimal forms (e.g., the plural addition of “s”). Secondly, they are not stressed during speech. Third, these morphemes are not open-class words (i.e., nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs). Fourth, their phonological construction may be different depending on the word to which they are attached (e.g., plural “s” has three different phonological forms). Finally, these fourteen morphemes develop gradually over time.

While all of these morphemes emerge between 27 and 30 months, most are not mastered during this time period. Children are said to have achieved mastery for grammatical morphemes when they use it correctly 90% of the time in obligatory contexts (Hulit & Howard, 2002; Owens, 2001).

It is important to note that the information for these fourteen morphemes is for children learning English. Morpheme development may be very different in other languages. For example, in Egyptian Arabic, plural marking is very complex and as a result, mastery may not be obtained until the teenage years (Owens, 2001).

Present progressive -ing

The present progressive provides information about the timing of the action, informing the listener that the action is currently underway and is of temporary duration (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Owens, 2001). The present progressive verb tense is the earliest verb inflection acquired by children learning English (Owens, 2001) with mastery occurring between 19 and 28 months of age (Hulit & Howard, 2001). For more information on this bound morpheme, please refer to Language 25 – 36 months.

In and on

In and on are the next two morphemes studied by Brown (1973). These morphemes are fully mastered by 30 months. More information on these morphemes can be found in Language 25 - 36 months.

Regular plural -s

Some children may have begun adding the plural –s to nouns before 24 months. Mastery of the regular plural morphemes is between 27 to 33 months (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Children first produce this morpheme in short phrases (e.g., “More dogs”) and then in short sentences (e.g., “I want crackers”). In the final stage of plural development, children differentiate regular (dog/dogs) and irregular forms (e.g., mouse/mice).

There are three different phonological forms for the regular plural: /s/, /z/ and /Iz/ (Owens, 2001). The voiceless plural marker, /s/, is used following voiceless consonants (e.g., boots). The voiced plural marker, /z/, is used following voiced consonants (e.g., beds). The plural marker, /Iz/, is used if the word ends in /s, z/ or “sh” (e.g., brushes). Children first learn the rule for /s/, then for /z/ and finally /Iz/. These rules are acquired gradually. Four-year old children may still be acquiring these rules.

Irregular past tense

Irregular past-tense verbs are those that do not use the –ed ending (e.g., ate, drank) (Owens, 2001). Children usually master this morpheme between 25 and 46 months, slightly earlier than they master the regular past tense verb morpheme (-ed). The irregular past tense forms hit and hurt are correctly used by 80% of children between three and three-and-a-half years of age (Owens, 2001). In the next six months, the majority of children begin to use went correctly. The irregular past tense form saw is used correctly by most four to four-and-a-half year old children. By age five, most children are also using gave and ate correctly.

When learning the irregular plural, the following error patterns have been noted in the speech of preschool children: (a) overextension of irregular forms across other irregular past tense verbs (e.g., knowledge of sang results in the irregular verb bring being producing as brang), (b) addition of the regular past tense –ed morpheme to verbs with irregular past tense (e.g., felled, eated), and (c) addition of the regular past tense –ed for verbs in which present and past tense are the same (e.g., I put it down today. She putted it away yesterday) (Hulit & Howard, 2001).


Children first mark possession by word order and stress (e.g., Daddy hat) (Owens, 2001). Children begin learning the possessive “s” between 27 and 30 months. Initially, they will use this morpheme with single animate nouns (e.g., Mommy’s). Possession is marked for objects that can have different owners (e.g., clothing) before marking possession on unalienable objects (e.g., body parts). Children’s age range for mastery of the possessive is 26 to 40 months. However, they may not master correct use of all three phonological forms (i.e., /s/, /z/, /Iz/) until later.

Uncontractible copula

When the verb “to be” is used as the main verb in an utterance, it is called the copula (Owens, 2001). In utterances, the copula may be followed by a noun, adjective, adverb or prepositional phrase (e.g., Boy is sick). The copula is first mastered in utterances in which it is not grammatically correct to use a contracted form. For example, the copula cannot be contracted when the response to a question omits redundant information (e.g., Who is happy? He is). Additionally, the copula cannot be contracted when it is the first or last word in a question (e.g., Is he sick?), in negative sentences in which not is contracted (e.g., The boy isn’t sick) and in the past tense (e.g., The boy was sick). Age of mastery for the uncontractible copula is between 27 and 39 months. However, children may continue to have difficulty with correct use of the uncontractible copula until 46 months (Hulit & Howard, 2001).


The articles a and the are first produced in the 27 to 30 month period and these morphemes are mastered between 28 to 46 months (Owens, 2001). Initially, it may be difficult to determine which article children are using due to their articulatory development or speech sound skills. Adults use the indefinite article, a, to indicate a non-specific reference or new information, while the definite article, the, is used to indicate a specific reference or old information. For example, adults may start a conversation about clothes with “I want to buy a new shirt” (i.e., a denoting new information) and continue it with “The shirt I liked best was green and blue striped” (i.e., the denoting old information).

Children first use articles when naming (e.g., That’s a dollie) (Owens, 2001; Weitzman, 1992). Initially, children use the article a frequently. Once they develop the definite article, however, the frequency with which they use the definite article surpasses their used of the indefinite. Three-year-old children tend to overuse the definite article, which may be related to their developing understanding of new versus shared information between themselves as speakers and their listeners. The definite article is frequently overused into the school years. By four years of age, children may also use some and any with mass nouns (e.g., some juice).

Regular past

The regular past verb tense, -ed, is mastered between 26 and 48 months (Owens, 2001). Three-year-old children continue to overgeneralize this morpheme to irregular past-tense verbs (e.g., comed). Children are more likely to use this morpheme on verbs that describe a discrete event (e.g., drop) (Owens, 2001).

There are three phonological variations of the regular past tense. The voiced form, /d/, is used following voiced consonants (e.g., begged), while the voiceless form, /t/, is used following voiceless consonants (e.g., walked). The final irregular form, /Id/, is used following /t/ and /d/ (e.g., batted) and is acquired last.

Third person singular marker: Regular and irregular

In English, the regular form of this marker (-s) is used only for the third person singular (e.g., He runs) (Owens, 2001). Similar to both the plural and possessive morphemes, there are three phonological variants (s, z, Iz). There are only a few English verbs that mark third person singular irregularly (e.g., do – does, have – has). The age of mastery for these morphemes ranges between 26 and 46 months. Children may continue to have difficulty with these morphemes beyond the age of 47 months (Hulit & Howard, 2001).

Uncontractible auxiliary

As stated earlier auxiliary verbs are joined to main verbs and provide additional information about action or state of the main verb. The uncontractible auxiliary refers to the verb “to be” when it is used as an auxiliary verb (Owens, 2001). There are certain conditions in which the use of the verb “to be” used as an auxiliary verb cannot be contracted. These include: (a) when marking past tense (e.g., She was running), (b) when it is the first or last word in a sentence (e.g., He is), (c) when the negative is contracted (e.g., She isn’t here), and (d) when known information is omitted in response to a question (see Uncontractible copula for examples). The age of mastery for the uncontractible auxiliary is between 29 and 48 months (Hulit & Howard, 2001).

Contractible copula

Recall that when the verb “to be” is used as a main verb in an utterance, it is called the copula. An example utterance containing the contractible copula is “Boy’s big.” Children first learn to contract the copula forms is and are before am. Children often overuse is (e.g., They is big). The contractible copula is mastered between the ages of 29 and 49 months (Owens, 2001). Children may continue to have difficulty using the contractible copula correctly beyond the age of 47 months (Hulit & Howard, 2001). As the contracted form is short and unstressed, listeners may not recognize when the contractible copula is used incorrectly.

Contractible auxiliary

The contractible auxiliary refers to the verb “to be” when it is used as an auxiliary verb (Owens, 2001). An example utterance containing the contractible auxiliary is “Daddy’s drinking juice.” The contractible auxiliary is mastered between the ages of 30 and 50 months. The development of the contractible copula and contractible auxiliary is similar. Children master the contracted auxiliary forms is and are before am.

Using the Bound Morphemes -er and -est

Three- to five-year-old children understand and use other bound morphemes. They begin to learn how suffixes can be used to change word meanings. The suffixes –er and –est can be added to adjectives to make comparative (e.g., bigger) and superlative (e.g., biggest) forms (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Children understand the superlative form at age three-and-a-half, but do not understand the comparative form until age five. Their understanding of these forms precedes use. In order to use these forms correctly, children must learn the following rules. For one syllable adjectives, -er and –est may be used to produce the comparative and superlative forms. For adjectives with more than one syllable (e.g., beautiful), more and most are added before the adjective to produce the comparative and superlative forms respectively. While learning these rules, children may produce utterances in which the comparative or superlative is marked twice (e.g., The puppy was the most softest ever). Understanding of exceptions (e.g., better and best) may continue into adulthood.

The suffix –er can also be added to some verbs to produce nouns (Hulit & Howard, 2001, Owens, 2001). For example, -er can be added to bake to create baker. Between two and three years of age, children created a noun form by adding man to the verb (e.g., runningman). By age five, they are usually able to understand and use the -er suffix instead.


Embedding is one of the most important syntactic developments for children between 35 and 40 months (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). When embedding, children may either add a phrase or a subordinate clause to a sentence. There are several types of phrases and clauses that children may embed in sentences. It is important to note that children do not master embedding within the three to five year period.

Object complements

Object complements are clauses that are introduced with “that” and act as nouns (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). This type of clausal conjoining emerges when children are between the ages of 35 and 40 months. Object complement clauses most frequently follow the verb think (Owens, 2001). Examples of object complements include “I think that I want pizza.” and “I hope (that) it’s mine.” This type of embedded clause accounts for over 85% of all embedded clauses of children between the ages of 35 and 46 months. Between 41 and 46 months, children may begin to omit the conjunction that in object complements, as in the example, “I think I want pizza” and “I hope it’s mine.”

Wh- clauses

Embedded wh- clauses are introduced with a wh- word that acts like a conjunction (i.e., what, where, when, who, which, how, why). When wh- clauses are embedded, what is the most frequently used wh- word (Owens, 2001). Examples of embedded wh-question clauses include “I want what she had” and “I danced when I heard the music.” Children begin embedding wh- clauses between the ages of 35 and 50 months.


Infinitives are phrases created when to + verb is embedded in a sentence (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Infinitives can function as nouns (e.g., I want to run), adjectives (e.g., I have my pillow to sleep on) or adverbs (e.g., I run in order to get fit) in sentences. Between 35 and 40 months, children begin to use primitive infinitive forms such as wanna, gonna, gotta, and hafta (e.g., I wanna play., I gotta go home.) Children first begin to use the true infinitive phrases when they refer back to the subject of the sentence (e.g., “Mommy want to drink juice.”). Children do not begin to use infinitives with nouns other than the subject until after they are four years of age (e.g., I want the baby to go bed).

Relative clauses

Relative clauses are embedded clauses introduced with relative pronouns who, whom, whoever, whomever, who, which, what or that (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Relative clauses act as adjectives modifying the preceding noun (e.g., The car that was red belongs to my brother, He is the man who yelled, and This is the way that I walk.). Children first begin using relative clauses between the ages of 41 and 46 months. The first relative pronoun used by children is that. Initially, preschoolers use relative clauses to describe empty nouns such as “one” or “thing,” as in the following example, “That boy has the one that I want.” These children understand sentences in which the relative pronoun is omitted but do not begin omitting the relative pronoun themselves until they are aged 46 months or older (e.g., “The boy has the one I want.”). Relative clauses account for less that 15% of embedded clause utterances of children aged four-and-a-half to five years of age (Owens, 2001). Children may use the wrong relative pronouns when embedding these clauses, as in the example, “I want the blocks who are falling” (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001).

Multiple Embeddings

By four years of age, children may begin producing multiple embeddings (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). For example, “I think that I want to eat the cake” has both an object complement (that I want cake) and an infinitive clause (to eat the cake) embedded within it. However, multiple embeddings are rare even in the school years.


Conjoining occurs when children join two independent clauses (i.e., clauses that contain both a subject and predicate and can stand alone as utterances). Children may begin conjoining clauses between the ages of 35 and 40 months, however, most children do not begin conjoining clauses until they are 41 to 46 months old (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Children first use and to conjoin, as in “The girl threw the ball and the boy ran to catch it.” They begin using if to conjoin between the ages of 41 and 46 months. Other conjunctions, including because, so, but and when, emerge after children are four years old. Although children may use but, so and because to conjoin clauses, and is the most commonly used conjunction into the school years.

Relations Expressed by Conjoining

Children first use conjoining to express additive relations (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). The meaning of each clause together is the same as when they are not joined, as in the example, “That boy is going home and I am having lunch.” Children then use conjoining to express temporal relations, such that the second clause that occurs follows the first in time. In this case, and is interpreted as then or when. For example, a child might say, “I drinked my juice and I played toys.” Children then express causal relations using conjoining, as in the example, “I drank my juice and I’m not thirsty.” In this case, and is interpreted as because. The combined meaning of the conjoined sentence is greater than each clause alone. Children then express adversative relations, where the two clauses represent a contrast. For example, children may say, “This is big and that is little.” Children may also use conjoining to describe or elaborate the preceding clause, as in the example, “I got a bottle and babies drink from it.”

Conjoining that includes independent clauses or clauses with deleted common elements is called phrasal coordination (e.g., Puppy is running and jumping) (Owens, 2001). Children initially use phrasal coordination when describing events that occurred at the same location. In phrasal coordination, children more commonly use forward reduction in which the independent clause precedes the conjunction (e.g., Mommy is making pasta and salad) than backward reduction in which the independent clause follows the conjunction (e.g., Nan and Max talked on the phone).

Conjoining in which elements cannot be deleted is called sentential coordination, as in the example, “Puppy is running and I am jumping.” Sentential coordination is initially used for events that occur at different times and locations.

Embedding and Conjoining in the Same Sentence

Four-year-old children begin to embed and conjoin within the same sentence (Owens, 2001). For example, a four-year-old might say, “I want to jump and Alice doesn’t,” embedding “to jump” and conjoining “I want to jump” and “Alice doesn’t.” Preschoolers may also conjoin three main clauses, forming sentences like the following example, “I am coloring, baby is sleeping and puppy is eating.” They may embed and conjoin three clauses, as in the example “I ate gummi bears and Joey ate the ones that were sharks.” Multiple embeddings and three clause sentences account for 11% of all children’s utterances between four-and-a-half and five years of age.

Using Morphemes to Determine Mean Utterance Length (MLU)

To measure utterance length, researchers count the number of morphemes in a child’s utterance. For example, the sentence “The big boys danced” contains 6 morphemes (i.e., The + big + boy + s + dance + ed).

To describe the average length of children’s utterances, researchers developed the variable, mean length of utterance or MLU. MLU is used to assess progress in, and to define periods of, toddlers’ and preschool children’s language development (Owens, 2001). MLU has been found to be a reliable predictor of language complexity for English-speaking children up to a MLU of 4.0. MLU is calculated based on a sample of 50 to 100 utterances. Once the morphemes in each utterance are counted, researchers apply the following formula to determine MLU.

MLU =  Total number of morphemes 

           Total number of utterances

Using MLU, Brown (1973) characterized the major language developments that occur as MLU increases. Between 35 and 40 months, the range of children’s MLU has increased to 3.0 to 3.75 (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Children between 41 and 46 months of age typically have a MLU of 3.75 to 4.5 morphemes. Beyond five years of age, researchers no longer use MLU to describe children’s language development.

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 age five, most children are producing all of the basic sentence types in English (Owens, 2001). They are also learning to produce more complex sentence types through embedding and conjoining.

Negative Sentences

By age three, children are producing negative sentences that contain auxiliary verbs (e.g., She is not helping me.) (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Tager-Flusberg, 2005). By age four, children also begin producing copula + negative forms (e.g., Mommy is not home.).

Children produce negative contractions as early as three years of age (e.g., can’t) but they do not understand that these negative contractions are created from an auxiliary verb plus the word not (e.g., can + not = can’t). They may use won’t interchangeably with no, not, can’t, and don’t (Owens, 2001). By three-and-half-years, children begin using didn’t, doesn’t, isn’t, and aren’t (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). Between three and four years of age, children develop a greater understanding of how contractions are produced. Four-year-old children begin contracting negatives with the copula (e.g., She isn’t happy (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001). They also begin attaching contracted negatives to modals (i.e., couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t) as in “She wouldn’t believe me.”

Children do not master negative interrogatives until after five years of age (e.g., Why don’t penguins fly?). Indefinite pronoun forms expressing negation such as nobody, nothing, and none may not be mastered until adulthood.


By three years of age, children produce a variety of question forms. Yes/no questions are common and may be produced using either the copula or an auxiliary verb with the subject and auxiliary verb reversed (e.g., Is daddy making cake?). Children become increasingly consistent at inverting the auxiliary and subject between three-and-a-half and five years of age. In order to achieve mastery of inverted forms, children must learn three rules (Owens, 2001). Rule number one is that when inverting, the auxiliary verb precedes the subject (e.g., Can I watch TV?). Rule number two is that the copula precedes the subject (e.g., Is she sad?). The third rule is that do must be inserted before the subject if there is no copula or auxiliary (e.g., Do you like tomatoes?).

Children acquire what, where, and who questions before why, when, and how questions (Tager-Flusberg, 2005). What, where and who questions are both easier to understand and easier to respond. Children may produce wh-questions with or without auxiliary verbs (e.g., What daddy do? or What is daddy doing?). Wh-questions are the first type of questions to be inverted (Owens, 2001). Why, when and how questions develop later as they require understanding of more abstract concepts, such as time, causality and manner. As well, these later-developing wh-questions usually require full sentence responses unlike what, where and who questions that require only single word or short phrases responses. Children are more successful when responding to questions about objects, people and events in the present. When and how questions remain difficult for four-year-old children to understand because they are still in the process of learning to understand past and future concepts (Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001).

Children also begin producing tag questions between three-and-a-half and four years of age (Owens, 2001). Tag questions are produced when an interrogative fragment (e.g., eh, isn’t it, huh) is added to the end of a declarative or imperative sentence. The following are examples of tag questions, “I want cookies, okay?” and “Sunny day, eh?” Children produce simple tags, such as huh and eh, before they produce full adult tags such as don’t you and isn’t it. Full adult tags are not acquired until children are school-aged. The frequency with which tag questions are used varies among English-speaking populations. In American English, tag questions are used infrequently. In Canadian English, the tag question with the colloquial tag eh may be used relatively frequently.

Negative interrogatives are not produced until after five years of age (e.g., Why don’t penguins fly?).

Declarative Sentences

Declaratives are sentences that make statements or assertions. Acquisition of closed-class words such as auxiliary verbs and prepositions allows three-year-old children to produce longer and more complex declarative sentences such as [subject + auxiliary + verb + object} (e.g., Boy is going school) and [subject + auxiliary + copula + complement] (e.g., Daddy won’t be happy.) (Owens, 2001). Children produce the former before the latter. Children begin producing declaratives with double auxiliaries at around three-and-a-half years of age (e.g., You will have to do it).

Children begin producing declarative sentences with indirect objects at around three-and-a-half years (Owens, 2001). Children first produce declaratives of the form [subject + verb + indirect object + object] (e.g., The baby gave the puppy a bone.) before they produce the form [subject + verb + object + to + indirect object] (e.g., The baby gave a bone to the puppy.)

Children’s understanding of active and passive declarative sentences develops over time. Researchers have found that for active sentences, production may precede comprehension. Children younger than three understand active sentences such as “The dog is chasing the cat” (Owens, 2001). However, they will interpret passive sentences such as “The cat was chased by the dog” as if the first noun was the subject and the second noun was the object (i.e., as if the cat was chasing the dog). Children do not correctly interpret passive sentences until they are 48 months or older. Passive sentences that include animate objects (e.g., cat, dog) may be better understood than those that include inanimate objects such as “The book was closed by Avery” (Hulit & Howard, 2001).

Creating Complex Sentences

Between three and five years of age, children continue to increase the complexity of their utterances through embedding and conjoining. In embedding, a phrase or a subordinate clause is added to a main clause. In conjoining, two independent clauses are joined together.

Understanding and Talking about Time

Children’s understanding and use of temporal information develops gradually. Three to five-year-old children use three different strategies when interpreting sentences that contain temporal information (Owens, 2001). In the first strategy, they use word order to interpret these utterances. As a result, they will interpret the sentences, “Before you go outside, you need to clean your room” and “After you go outside, you need to clean your room” as “Go outside, then clean your room.” These children do not understand the meaning of before and after. Children may not understand before and after until they are school-aged.

Using the second strategy, children will interpret the independent clause as the first event (Owens, 2001). The example, “After you go outside, you need to clean your room” will be interpreted as “Clean your room, then go outside” as “after you go outside” is the subordinate clause.

Finally, children may use their knowledge of routines and common sequences of events to interpret temporal relations. For example, children’s understanding of the routine involved in eating may lead them to respond appropriately to the utterance “After you wash your hands, we will have a snack.”

Children’s ability to follow directions is affected by their understanding of temporal relations (Owens, 2001). When following directions, children between three-and-a-half and five may omit a clause. For example, children may interpret the direction “Before you go outside, put on your shoes and hat” as “Go outside.”

Between three and three-and-a-half years old, children begin to differentiate between events that occurred in the past, those that are ongoing and those that are yet to happen in their speech. To indicate past events, children use grammatical morphemes for regular past and irregular past tense. Third person singular grammatical morphemes and the present progressive are used to indicate ongoing or current events. Adverbs such as yesterday and tomorrow may also be used to indicate time. For example, children may say “I am going to school tomorrow.” Children do not use before and after until they are school-aged. Between three-and-a-half and four years of age, children become able to “describe past, present and future events from the perspective of all three times” (Owens, 2001, p 324). For example, children may say, “Tomorrow, can we go to the zoo like we did yesterday?”

Developing Deixis

Deixis is a process in which the meaning of a word relies on the context. For example, the meaning of the word I changes depending on who is speaking. Children develop an understanding of deixis gradually (Owens, 2001). They first demonstrate understanding of deixis relative to the pronouns I, you, and me.

There are three phases in the development of spatial deicitic terms such as here and there (Owens, 2001). Initially, children will use these terms indiscriminantly to direct attention or reference. Thirty-month-old toddlers will use these terms in association with a gesture to indicate meaning. This and that continue to be used indiscriminantly until four years of age. Children interpret these terms as near the speaker, far from the speaker, near them or far away from them. Children seem to prefer to use themselves as the point of reference. In the second phase, children use this and here correctly but overgeneralize these terms when they should use that and there. Children may correctly use all four terms when using themselves as the reference point. In the final phase of development, the deictic point of reference is mastered. Children master here and there before this and that. Other deictic terms such as locational prepositions (e.g., in front of) are mastered by age four. For more information on these terms, please refer to Locational Prepositions. Age of mastery varies depending on the term, with some contrasts not understood until adulthood.

Developing Narratives

A narrative may be described as a series of sentences conveying information about events or experiences (real or fictional) in an orderly sequence in which the speaker is exclusively responsible for conveying the message (Hulit & Howard, 2001). Children recognize, respond to, and tell stories within their sociocultural community. There are four universal types of narratives that young children are exposed: recounts, accounts, eventcasts, and fictional stories. However, the frequency and degree of elaboration of each type varies greatly across sociocultural groups (Heath, 1986). Recounts relate shared experiences and are adult prompted (e.g., “Tell Grandma what we did at the park today.” or “Show and Share” activities in preschool). Accounts are children’s spontaneous verbalizations of experiences. The defining feature of accounts is that they are children initiated rather than adult prompted. Children often begin accounts with “You know what?” Eventcasts are descriptions about a current or future event. This form of narrative is often used to direct the actions of others in imaginative play. Fictional stories have an anticipated pattern and structure in which a character is attempting to carry out a goal. Fictional stories relate past, present or future events that are not real. Children began producing narratives from one or more of these types within the 25 to 36 month period.

Strategies for Organizing Narratives: Centering and Chaining

Children follow two strategies when structuring narratives: centering and chaining (Applebee, 1978). When children create a narrative around a central theme it is called centering. Each object or action mentioned relates to the central theme, although this relationship may seem somewhat tenuous to the listener. Chaining refers to stories created by children in which events are temporally and logically related. By three years of age, children may be using both centering and chaining strategies when creating narratives.

Development of Narratives

With age, the structure of children’s narratives becomes increasingly complex. As well, these narratives become easier for their listeners to understand. Stages in the development of narratives during the preschool period include sequence stories, primitive narratives and chain narratives (Applebee, 1978).

Sequence Stories

Three-year-old children produce centering sequences or sequence stories (Applebee, 1978; Owens, 2001; Paul , 2001). The topics of these centering sequences are “events linked on the basis of similar attributes or events that create a simple but meaningful focus for a story” (Owens, 2001, p 290-291). Sequence stories are organized around a central theme, character or setting (Paul, 2001). As organization is not temporal or causal, changing the sentence order does not affect meaning. These narratives do not have a plot. Children may not provide sufficient background information for listeners to fully understand the story (Weitzman, 1992). Owens (2001) provided this example of a centering sequence: “I ate a hamburger (mimes eating). Mommy threw the ball, like this. Daddy took me swimming (moves hand, acts silly). I had two sodas.” Children use prosody and gestures extensively while telling early narratives.

During reading of familiar stories, caregivers facilitate their children’s understanding of event sequencing by asking questions about what happens next (Apel & Masterson, 2001). This understanding is important to narrative development.

Primitive Narratives

Between four and four-and-a-half years, children begin producing primitive narratives (Applebee, 1978; Paul, 2001). These narratives are organized around an object, character or event. In these narratives, children describe an initiating event that influences the character to action, the actions of the main character and the outcome of the character’s actions. Primitive narratives may not have a well-developed conclusion. Paul (2001) provides the following example of a primitive narrative: “Find a frog. He sees a frog. He fell. And the frog hopped. And he catched the frog. Frog hopped again. Then he went away. The boy was angry. And the frog was pretty nervous. Then he followed the foot track.” (p. 393).

Chain Narratives

Between four-and-a-half and five years of age, time-based chain narratives begin to emerge (Applebee, 1978; Hulit & Howard, 2001; Owens, 2001, Paul, 2001). Utterances are organized such that they tell what happened and in what order (Hulit & Howard, 2001). These narratives have a central theme but lack a plot and any cause and effect reference. Characters, settings and actions may shift over the course of the narrative (Owens, 2001). Although chain narratives may have a conclusion, it may not logically follow the events and may be abrupt (Paul, 2001). Children may use pronouns, past-tense verbs and temporal conjunctions (e.g., and, then, and then) in their chain narratives (Owens, 2001). Hulit and Howard (2001) provide the following example of a chain narrative: “Mommy took me to the zoo. There was a lion. He made a noise. There was a monkey. And I got some popcorn. And we drived home.” (p. 198).

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Research Narrative: Listening, Vocalizing and Interacting 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