Language Play: Stages of Language and Resources for Practice


When kids are little, we enjoy the quirky ways they express their ideas. We hear them say funny, ungrammatical things, and it delights us to hear them grapple with the English language. These errors show a developing repertoire of grammatical forms. When they say “mans” and “falled,” they show an understanding of the underlying rules of English grammar. They’ve listened to language around them enough to simplify and use morphological rules (for example, plurals are the noun plus an “s” sound at the end of the noun; past tense is the verb plus “t” and “d” sounds at the end of the verb). This shows a pretty sophisticated understanding! If we look carefully, we see that children learn the basic rules or patterns first, then generalize them (like “goed” for “went”). And then they notice the exceptions; those pesky details that break the rules. Of course, English is a hybrid language, so there are MANY exceptions. Eventually they create models in their minds of what “sounds” right as a guide.

Some children, for several potential reasons, may have trouble noticing or hearing the exceptions to the basic rules in the adult language around them. It could be caused by many things including different brain wiring, lack of attention to detail, difficulty organizing speech into patterns. Or it could be living in a stressful environment, emotional issues, or having recurring ear infections that make listening difficult at a critical period for learning. For these children, grammatical development appears stalled, and their expression sounds “young” to us. Many of these children need clear instructions and lots of practice to acquire adult grammar. They need to learn the underlying rules and they need to establish their own models in order to hear and decide what sounds correct. For parents, it’s difficult to tell if there’s a problem, because if you’ve ever spent time in a kindergarten classroom, you know that all kids are developing at different rates in different areas. Their language skills are so diverse that listening to different children speak, it’s very hard to tell what is expected! That’s where language screenings by speech language pathologists are helpful to identify if there are any gaps.

There have been many studies of morphological development that guide therapists and teachers. I use one by Brown (1973) which is the basis of many standardized language tests:

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Other grammatical formations develop over time , such as negation (“No” changes to “I don’t want to”), and question formation (“Can I?” changes to wh-questions) (“Where it is?” changes to “Where is it?”).

For more information on Brown’s Stages of Language and time frames for them, check out Brown’s Stages of Language Development.

The good news for parents is that there are apps for extra practice that an SLP may suggest for home practice. Here are a few I suggest from Superduper, Inc. for practice after explicit instruction in speech sessions:

  • Regular Past Tense Verbs
  • Irregular Past Tense Verbs
  • Plurals Fun Deck
  • Using “I and Me” Fun Deck
  • “WH” Question cards
  • “WH” Questions at School

I also use the Question Sleuth by Zorten for practice using questions “Where” and “Is.” Before each turn the child must say “Where is the star? Is it under the _____?”

Remember to never directly correct a child’s grammar. Rather, repeat what they say “your” way (model) and then quickly respond to what they are trying to tell you. If you spend too much time on correction, they will feel like you aren’t listening to them. Reinforce correct productions when you notice them, “I heard you use ‘the.’ Nice job!”

As a parent, supporting your child’s language development is complex. You can seek advice and use guidelines. Most of all, don’t forget to relax and enjoy being with your family!


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at

[Image credit: (ccl) Tom Magliery]

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