When we understand the mechanisms behind how children learn and refine their language skills, we can leverage that knowledge into ways to enhance their language development.
The competition model of language development, which posits that “language development draws heavily on the input children hear” is one theory that we can use to help children develop strong language skills. According to this model of learning, “children acquire language forms that they hear frequently and reliably….” (Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 62).
Putting aside for the time being all the esoteric debate about prescriptive versus descriptive grammar and Standard English and dialects, etc., let’s assume that you want your children to speak English “properly.”* Knowing that, according to the competition model, your children will acquire forms of language that they hear frequently, it’s important that they, yep, frequently hear, examples of proper Standard English grammar. (I’m just going to call this “good grammar” from this point, though the phrase is politically charged.)
For sure, they will say things that are incorrect. But as they are exposed to language more and more, incorrect forms are replaced by correct forms. Put succinctly:
In the competition model, multiple language forms compete with one another until the input strengthens the correct representation and the child no longer produces an incorrect form. (Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 62)
So this is why we need to correct their grammar: You’re providing the input they need to acquire good grammar. And I hate to say it, but this kind of input is becoming increasingly rare. However, we don’t want to be grammar police with our children either.
Here’s how to gently and effectively encourage our children to learn and employ good grammar:
1) Model good grammar.
Since the input children receive is such a huge, if not the biggest, determiner of the kind of language they will speak, it’s crucial that they receive a very healthy dose of exposure to language that is full of proper usage. It’s best if these examples are woven into the language we speak with them, what is read aloud to them, even (perhaps especially) what they watch. So we should be aware of the quality of input and provide plenty of opportunity for exposure to a high standard of language.
2) Correct through gentle repetition.
Correcting grammar doesn’t have to be tiresome to either the parent or the child. In fact, it’s probably best to keep grammar correction low-key and pleasant so that it doesn’t become associated with negative feelings. For example, when a child says something like, “I goed to the store with Daddy,” you can simply repeat the correct form, but within the context and flow of the conversation: “Oh, you went to the store with Daddy?” This input strengthens the correct form. In some situations, sentence construction makes it impossible to model in this way. Take the dreaded, “Me and him went to the soccer game.” In keeping with gentle correction, try something like, “Oh, that sounds so fun. But we say ‘Noah and I went to the soccer game,’ okay? Who won?” The kids tend to take it in stride, and it really makes a difference.
It’s never too early to consider our children’s language development. They start listening to us even while in the womb! Language development is truly a human miracle and in so many ways the foundation for learning and therefore a heavy influencer of success in many aspects not only of communication, but of life itself. My personal belief, and I know there are many who would agree, is that equipping our children with the use of good grammar is giving them a skill that will only serve them well. Let’s do it!
For more along these lines, see 7 Ways to Boost Language Development Simply by How You Respond.
*See, I can’t even help putting that in quotes because of the class I’m taking now about grammar. It reminds me of the feeling I had in my children’s literature class at Berkeley, which, when looking forward to it, I had some kind of dreamy notion we’d talk about Sendak and Lobel and maybe the evolution of children’s stories from nightmarish fairy tales to something more palatable to a modern sensibility. But no, no, no, that class, in addition to requiring us to buy the professor’s mammoth guide to children’s literature (which we never used) just made me want to stand up and shout : “I’m sorry I’m white, okay????!” I did, however, read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in that class, for which I’m grateful.Reference:
– Turnbull, K., & Justice, L. (2012). Language Development from Theory to Practice (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.