Language Development in School-Age Children

Before your children even enter school, they will have mastered the basics of their native language. And although this mastery of the basics tends to occur as early as 4 years of age, children still are in the process of developing the more difficult aspects of language into their school years 2. This is when children begin to conquer phonology, build robust vocabularies, and use complex sentence structures with high frequency.

Phonology Development

Phonology, or articulation of sounds, is usually easy enough for children as young as 5. However, the fact that your youngster can pronounce the majority of her language’s sounds does not mean her phonological skills have stopped developing. On the contrary, children continually improve their phonological skills until around 15, at which time they not only have smoothed out any pronunciation problems but can also understand speech in noisy environments. It is only in the school years when a child’s speech truly becomes fluent to the adult ear.

Vocabulary Development

While parents may have been amazed by their children’s increase in vocabulary during the preschool years, it is the school years when a child’s word recognition really begins to grow. The number of words a child knows grows exponentially after he enters his school years. According to Erika Hoff, developmental psychologist and author of "Language Development," the average child entering elementary school knows about 10,000 words 12. This doubles to 20,000 words by grade 3, and doubles again to 40,000 words by grade 5. The main reason for this vocabulary growth spurt lies in school-age children learning how words are created, such as by adding grammatical inflections to root words. For example, school-age children know that adding “ness” to many adjectives can create a new noun, such as in “sadness.”

Sentence Development

By the age of 5, children have little problem with making sentences with a single meaning, such as:

  • in “He sees the ice cream man.” But during the school years
  • the complexity of children’s sentences increases to add multiple noun phrases
  • subordinate clauses
  • adverbial clauses
  • making speech seem much more adult-like

According to Dr. Erika Hoff, psychologist and author of “Language Development,” parents will notice their children making grammatically incorrect sentences that combine multiple meanings between the ages of 4 and 9 12. While grammatically incorrect, sentences like “The ice cream man gives him an ice cream cone so he happily goes home with it, but the ice cream cone falls on the ground, so he starts to cry” imply that your child is beginning to understand how to link multiple meanings together in a clear discourse.

Conversational Skill Development

As the primary purpose of language is to allow smooth communication, without conversational skills, language development is meaningless 12. But by the time children reach the fifth grade, they display a large shift in how they communicate. The amount of brief or aborted dialogues, dialogues in which sentences are started and suddenly stop or switch to a new subject, drops drastically. Instead, children begin speaking in medium-to-long dialogues focused on a single topic, characteristic of adult conversation. Around grade 9, children are speaking at a conversational level near that of adults.