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School Age Language Skills: Vocabulary, Grammar, Sentence Structure and MORE!

Article Written By: Melissa Gagnon, Owner and Speech-Language Pathologist

During the first few years of life there are many 'check points' to help parents ensure that their child is on track and if their child is not meeting the milestones, they are supported through early intervention. But what about after those first three years of life? What about the preschool and school age years?


Once a child starts talking, there are many other areas of expressive language that we are interested in. Expressive language becomes more than the number of words a child is using, their use of grammar, and sentence structure. Expressive language becomes how a child understands and relates words, how they use their own knowledge and experiences to help them determine meanings of new words, and their ability to explain and describe.


Let's dive into these areas further:


1) Semantic Word Knowledge:


A varied vocabulary is a key factor in school-age child's ability to learn new information.

A child's ability to use language, in a range of contexts, is largely reliant on their semantic word knowledge (the range of words a person knows and understands, and their ability to use these words in sentences, both oral and written). Semantic word knowledge is also called a child's lexicon or mental dictionary and includes the following:

  • Concept words (categories): an understanding of what a horse is, based on word knowledge, world knowledge and experiences.

  • Content words: the different forms of words used in sentences to expand language such as adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.

  • Synonyms: words which have a similar meaning; example, laugh-giggle.

  • Antonyms: words which have opposite meanings; example, hot-cold.

  • Homonyms: words that have the same name but different spelling and meaning; example, son-sun.

Children with a language disorder generally have a vocabulary that is poor in comparison to children of the same age. You can ask yourself the following questions and if you answer 'yes' to any of the below, your child may benefit from speech language pathology services:

  • Does your child present with poor word and world knowledge (e.g., they have difficulty using their knowledge and past experiences to understand information)

  • Do they have difficulty expressing their thoughts?

  • Does your child have a lot of trouble remembering new words?

  • Is your child able to generate synonyms and antonyms for a variety of words/make links between words?


If the child with language difficulty is unable to gain an understanding of the meaning of a particular word, then the new word is rarely committed to memory. It essentially becomes lost.


2) Meaning From Context


Meaning from context refers to a child's ability to read or hear a new word, then use their background knowledge and the other information in the text to determine what the new word means. It is very much connected to a semantic word knowledge; therefore, if a child has a reduced lexicon, making connections to determine the meaning of new words can be difficult.


Research tells us that teaching context clues using explicit instruction is effective in increasing vocabulary knowledge and improving reading comprehension in children with poor existing vocabulary knowledge, compared to teaching new vocabulary items by definition only.


How do we teach context clues?

1) First we teach a child the different types of clues that may be present in a passage

2) We have the child identify the unknown word/new vocabulary item

3) Have the child highlight any clues that may help them infer new meaning

4) Then have them define the word based on past knowledge and the clues found in the passage


3) Ability to Explain


Explanation and descriptive language skills are closely related. A child who has poor descriptive language skills is likely to have difficulty explaining. Have you ever asked your child to explain to you the steps needed to play their favorite game? Or asked them to explain why something does not belong or go together?


Children require vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and sequencing skills in order to explain a task/story/or event. They often use explanations when conversing with peers as well; therefore, children who demonstrate difficulty in this area, may also struggle with social situations/conversations.


4) Ability to Describe


Using descriptive language is often difficult for children with language delays and disorders. They struggle with describing features of an object, describing details in a story, and/or expanding sentences/providing details in their written work.


Difficulty can also be seen in their ability to link a variety of descriptions/clues to an object. For example, when they are provided with clues such as: it is black and white, it is a bird, it lives in the snow, it can swim, it cannot fly, it has a beak and wings- they are unable to determine the name of the object.


If a child demonstrates difficulty with descriptive language tasks, this can translate into difficulties with comparing and contrasting later in school. For example, as a child enters into the upper grades, they may be required to compare two stories/two characters/two biographies.

As you can see, descriptive language skills are important in academics in both the lower and upper grades. If you suspect your child is struggling in this area, it is best to reach out to a Speech Language Pathologist for support. Here at Empower Communication Services, we use a fantastic tool called the Expanding Expressive Language Tool to help support a child in the area description. The tool provides a framework for children to help them with using and understanding the following:

  • The category/group the object belongs to

  • Function of the object/what it does

  • What it looks like

  • What it is made of

  • What parts it has

  • Where you find it

  • Anything else that you know about it based on past knowledge/experience





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