Your toddler’s grasp on grammar

Between the ages of two and three, your little one’s language will improve in leaps and bounds. Not only will the number of words he uses explode, but his grammar will also become much more advanced.

What exactly is grammar and why is it important?

Grammar is a set of language rules that includes the way we put words in order to form things like phrases, clauses, and sentences, and also the grammatical markers that let people use singular and plural forms to indicate numbers, and use verb-tenses to define time-frames. Grammar allows people – and will someday allow Baby – to understand each other and be understood. It will allow him to communicate and express themselves more clearly the better he learns it. Toddlers develop their knowledge of grammar and their ability to use these skills through listening, time, and practice.

What Baby’s language is probably like presently

By age two, your little chatterbox could probably communicate in some pretty amazing ways. he was probably able to: 

  • Say around 50 to 100 words, though some children may even have their vocab jump to 300 words by this age. Between the ages of two and four, vocab can increase by as many as two words per day. Some of these words might sound unclear, but can be understood in context, and little ones can understand many more words than they can say.
  • Use simple, two-word phrases or sentences – largely noun-verb combos –  like “more milk” or “dada go.”
  • Use sentence length of up to three words
  • Use a lot of nouns
  • Start to use a final “s” for plurals
  • Use verbs like “play,” “go” and “jump”
  • Use adjectives like “wet,” “yucky,” or “windy”
  • Use words like “more” and “most”
  • Begin to use some pronouns correctly, like “I,” “me,” and “you”
  • Begin to understand the concept of and use the words “my” and “mine”
  • Use a few prepositions, like “in,” “on,” and “under”
  • Respond to simple commands, like “Come here”
  • Respond to simple questions, though may not yet know how to respond to “why” or “how” questions
  • Use words to make questions, like “who,” “what,” and “where”
  • Ask one- or two-word questions, like “Go sleep?”

At around two and a half years old, vocab will continue to boom, as will Baby’s understating of grammar, and he will start to apply grammar rules to his speaking more and more, and will start to use verbs more flexibly. The more your little one is speaking, the more mistakes he might make. This means that he won’t always get those plurals or verb tenses quite right, especially with irregular words and phrases. He might say “foots” instead of “feet” or “runned” instead of “ran.” But these mistakes are a-okay and will continue on for some time. The same way Baby would regularly tumble when learning to walk, he needs to make mistakes when speaking so he can learn from them.

What’s just ahead?

By age three, his language will be even more advanced. he will likely be able to:

  • Speak up to 1000 words
  • Use longer sentences, from three- to four-word simple sentences to five-word sentences or more, such as “Mummy go in bed” or “Put hat on head” 
  • Use more and more verbs with increasing flexibility, including some past tenses and “-ing” endings
  • Use adverbs like “fast,” and “gently”
  • Use negatives like “no” and “not”
  • Use more pronouns correctly, though “me” and “I” may often be confused
  • Know at least three prepositions, like “in,” “on,” and “under”
  • Respond to two- or three-step commands, like “Pick up the dolly and put her in the basket”
  • Speak clearly enough to be understood by family, if not strangers

Some simple ways to encourage language learning

  • Speak using simple and clear language. Follow your little one’s lead, observe him, and discuss what he is doing and feeling throughout the day. What is he interested in? What does he like talking about? You can comment on what he is doing and occasionally ask questions, but not too many, as Baby may become frustrated if he can’t respond the way PORNOUN_HE_SHE_LOWER wants to yet. An important part of this is speaking in turn, and giving your little one time to respond and recognize back and forth and pauses.
  • One of the best things you can do is model correct grammar instead of instructing him on it. This means not correcting your child when he says something that is grammatically incorrect. Instead, it helps to say the same idea back to him with correct grammar. You can also emphasize the correct part of speech and even expand on what your child is saying for more advanced sentences. So when you hear, “I falled,” you can say, “Yes, you did fall. You fell down. Let me give you a hug.” Or “Me want truck.” you can also say, “Oh, you want the big red truck!” Correcting can discourage children from trying out new words and phrases, and now is the right time for Baby to be taking risks. Modeling instead of correcting gives Baby the information he needs without discouraging him.
  • Books are a great way to introduce new words, phrases, and ideas. Follow Baby‘s lead as you explore a book, but also ask questions (Who is this? What is the bunny doing? What do you think will happen next?), point to pictures, and talk about what you see. It helps to model correct grammar usage, new words, and storytelling.
  • Ask your little one to tell you a story about the pictures in a book, an animal or object you walk by or about family photos up on the wall. He will usually share a simple sentence that you can respond to by modeling correct grammar, if it contains any mistakes. 
  • Since understanding pronouns becomes important around this age, you can try to engage your little one in activities that will call for him to use “I,” perhaps by having him ask for objects. You can also use pronouns in everyday activities when reading stories for example, “What’s daddy doing? He is cooking your dinner right now,” and, “Madeline is brave. She is going to the doctor.”
  • Play pretend and talk about it. Ask your little one to tell you what is happening, what just happened and what might happen next. If you can help Baby consider something beyond the “here and now” in his play, he will learn more complex grammar and new verb tenses. “What is the dolly doing?” “Dolly sleep.” “Oh, you’re right, the dolly is sleeping.” “What did your doggy just do? “Doggy bark.” “Yes, the doggy barked.” “What will the bunny do next?” “Bunny eat lunch.” “Okay, the bunny will eat lunch.”

As you engage with Baby in these ways the goal is always helping him hit the next level – so don’t expect him to go immediately from “Me go sleep,” to “Mother, I’m quite tired, so I think I shall retire to the nursery now with my beloved bear and blankey.”

All children develop at their own pace, but if you’re concerned that Baby isn’t hitting these milestones, speak to your child’s healthcare provider who can provide you with more guidance. Finally, language learning should be fun! If you follow Baby’s lead, he can feel engaged and empowered as he continues to try out language in new and exciting ways.

  • Rachel Cortese. “Helping Toddlers Expand Language Skills.” Child Mind Institute. Child Mind Institute, Inc.
  • Stephan C. Meylan et al. “The Emergence of an Abstract Grammatical Category in Children’s Early Speech.” Psychological Science. 28(2): 181-192. January 10 2017. Retrieved August 16 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Language development: Speech milestones for babies.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, February 11 2016. Retrieved August 16 2017.
  • “Preschooler Development by Age and Domain.” Best Start. Best Start. Retrieved August 16 2017.
  • “Toddler Talking Milestones.” PBS Parents. PBS Parents.

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