Your Child and Optimal Language Development in the Preoperational Stage

15 Minutes Reading Time

Congrats. Your child finished her first day of nursery school.

Your child is walking, and you are always on the go, running after her. You consider sending her to nursery school to develop her social skills. But more important, for the benefits of cognitive and language development. It happens through proper stimulation and exposure to various learning activities. 

The development of language skills for effective communication and reading skills for future academic success is critical. Studies show that the level of language development at age two influences future academic success. But even more critical, language development is a more crucial factor for school readiness than your career or income status. 

The preoperational stage is the second stage of Jean Paiget’s learning development model.  But as pointed out in previous articles, parents should use it as a guideline only. Children can pass through these stages at different ages. They can even show characteristics of more than one stage at any time. 

It is important to note that  the following does not change:

  • Cognitive development always takes place in the order defined by Piaget.
  • A child cannot skip any of these stages.
  • Each stage leads to new intellectual abilities and more complex thinking and understanding of her world.

What is the preoperational stage?

The preoperational stage can overlap with the previous sensorimotor stage. It is the stage when their symbolic thinking develops and their language matures. They build their memory and imagination and begin to understand the concepts of past and future. They begin to take part in daydreaming, fantasy, and make-believe.

What develops at 3 - 6 years?
Memory, Fantasy, Imagination, Make-believe, Daydreaming

Their thinking is not yet wholly logical but based on intuition. These children don’t understand complex concepts like cause and effect, time, and comparisons.

To understand the milestones of the preoperational stage, let’s look at its three phases.

The three phases in the preoperational stage

An essential factor for language learning is predictability. We all form expectations about what will happen and learn when things turn out different. For example, your child knows it is safe to touch a countertop, but not a stove after getting burnt.

“When situations are predictable, young children do not have to keep track of what is different than expected,” Benitez said. “They know exactly what will happen next, and this might allow children to learn better.” 

Study: Language Acquisition in Toddlers Improved by Predictable Situations

Children are analytic learners. It means they like to learn new words and facts, which leads to a better understanding of ideas and actions. They think about their experiences, judge their accuracy, and examine details. These new facts and insights are then integrated with what they already know.

How do these principles apply to the three preoperational phases?

Preoperational stage phases:
- Multi-word sentences (2-2 1/2)
- More complex grammatical structures (2 1/2 - 3)
- Adult-like language structures (5-6)
Multiple-word sentences (2 – 2 1/2 years)

You will now see increased language development. It covers vocabulary, understanding, pronunciation, and conversation skills.

Language development and understanding

Your toddler is learning more new words and sounds but still struggles with complex sounds. She begins to form three-word sentences and develops her conversation skills. As a result, you can understand more of what she is saying, and strangers will comprehend three-quarters of what she says.

Together with three-word sentences, she uses grammar and more structured sentences. Your child can also use past tense and plurals, although not always in the correct way. She might say gooses instead of geese or goed instead of went.

She understands more of what people say and can follow one or two-step instructions. But only if it is something familiar. For example, take your plate and put it in the sink.

She can answer some questions with who, what, and where but might still struggle with questions using why and how. And she can tell from your tone of voice if you are happy, affectionate, or angry. 

Pronunciation

Your child will use more speech sounds, but her pronunciation is not always correct. For example, even though she can say b and l, she can’t combine them in a word like blow. She can still struggle with sounds like z, sh, f, v,r, and th.

Conversation skills and play

You can have short, simple conversations with her and together create simple stories. Like this example:

She: I go park,

You: What did you do at the park?

She: Play on the grass.

Your child can now talk about people and objects not present. She will start to speak the way familiar adults talk. Since she can begin to express her feelings, she may now cry less than she used to. 

Your child starts to give voices to her toys when she plays. When she plays in groups, she uses these toy voices in simple conversations. She now learns to share with others and to take turns.

Use fun activities such as rhyming, singing, and listening to stories to develop language skills.  Your child now talks to herself using a very loud or very soft voice.

Children from bilingual homes don’t constantly develop faster. They mix their languages until they can differentiate between them.

Activities
Simple conversations

Ensure you take note of what interests your child, comment, and let her respond. For example, if you are in the garden and she points to a flower, you can say: That is a nice yellow flower. See how she responds. Make sure you give her enough time to find the right words. Show her that you are listening by making eye contact and how you react to her message. It will encourage her to talk more and learn about the patterns of conversations. Finally, let her tell you about her daily activities and play.  

Also Read:  An authentic exploration of language development in the sensorimotor stage
Teach her words for feelings and body language

Despite her expanding vocabulary, she still uses gestures to express thoughts and feelings when she doesn’t know the words. She can nod for yes, shake her head for no, or reach for something she wants.  Use this opportunity to teach her by saying what you think your child wants,  e.g., You look sleepy. Do you want your blanky?

Show her through sentences how words, feelings, and body language work together. For example,  I’m sorry you knocked your cup over. I see you are really sad that your picture is now messed up. 

Get her talking

Read stories with word patterns, rhymes, and colourful images to catch and hold her attention. Sing songs to help her understand different word sounds. When you and she are playing together, describe what you are doing,  e.g., Give the doll to mommy, or your doll looks pretty. Let your child choose what to wear by asking: Do you want to wear the yellow or green hat? 

If your child misuses a verb (like goed), repeat the sentence using the correct verb. Daddy went out the door. Repeat her simple sentences back in complete sentences. If she says: Doggy come here, you can respond. Do you want the doggy to come here?

Understanding words

If your toddler seems confused about the meaning of what you’ve said, try rephrasing. Try different ways until she understands.  Use exact words to describe things. Repetition will help her to understand, and it will become part of her active vocabulary. Limit instructions or requests to one or two at a time, and use familiar words. E.g. Put the puzzle pieces in the box. Then put the box on the shelf. 

More complex grammatical structures (2 1/2 – 3 years)

Grammar provides the building blocks to understand and express more complicated ideas. It complements other areas of their language development. Like content (vocabulary, meaning) and language use (conversation, social and narrative skills). Grammatical skills are best learned through modelling by parents and teachers. The best way is to:

  • Respond and expand on children’s attempts.
  • Model more complicated language.
  • Talking clearly about words, phrases, and sentences

Together with more complex sentences and grammar, she also starts to use suffixes. For example, ing, plurals (cats, oranges), and past tense (sit – sat, walk – walked).

Combining words is an essential step in language development. It is how they start to communicate more complicated ideas. Your child now begins to label and describe her world and becomes more effective with sharing her perspective.  

More complex sentences can be telling someone to do something, negative sentences, or asking questions. Your child can also use more complex verbs and nouns in her sentences or join words and sentences.

Activities

During regular play and interaction, use various types of complex sentences.

  • Describe nouns like people, places, or things –pretty yellow fish.
  • Use prepositions to describe locations – Can you see the cat behind the tree.
  • Add more details about what you are doing – I have washed the dishes.
  • Use adverbs to tell how something is happening – the dog walks slowly up the hill.
  • Make use of verbs to describe thoughts and feelings – I want to have a cookie.
  • Utilize adjectives to compare features of things – Our car is as red as your coat.
  • Explain and give reasons for things – you can’t have a cookie because you haven’t eaten all your food. 
  • Make sentences using words like instead, while,  and otherwise to link ideas – While you take a bath, I will read you a story.

Adult-like language structures (5-6 years)

At five to six years old, your child starts to use adult-like language structures. She can make complex structural distinctions, such as asking, telling, and promising concepts. It includes changing the word order of a sentence based on the use of these concepts. For example: 

  • Ask her how old she is.
  • She promised to make her bed.

You see progress in her language development through increased vocabulary, more complex sentences, and the ability to tell more detailed stories.

Let’s have a look at what each of these milestones looks like at age five to six.

Language development

At five years, your child knows that sounds and syllables make up words. She can identify words that begin with the same sound and also notice words that sound the same. She enjoys finding words that rhyme. When she turns six, she knows the sounds of some or all the alphabet letters.  It is an essential step for reading readiness. She now starts to put single syllables together to make words. For example, b,e, and d, for bed.

Reading time is now even more fun. Your child starts to read simple stories with easy words that sound like they are spelt, like dog, car, or bed. She will enjoy copying the letters of the sounds and words she knows. 

At age, five strangers can understand everything she says, even though her pronunciation is not always correct. She might still struggle to say sounds like r,  (says w), l, or th (says f).

Vocabulary

Your five year old knows the correct use of most verbs for past and future tense. Your child starts to understand the concept of time. Like night, day, and yesterday. 

She now has a basic understanding of grammar rules but still has to learn the many exceptions. For example

  • Broke instead of breaked
  • Threw instead of throwed
  • Ate instead of eated

From five to six years, she understands that the same word can have different meanings and starts to use them in the proper context. She also now begins to use metaphors and non-literal language. For example, Make up your mind.

Play word games to encourage her to practice how to make new words by combining two words. You will hear these compound words more often as she talks. 

Your \child learns that the beginning and ending of words can change their meaning. She will start adding prefixes such as ness (sadness), un (uncover), and er (walker). She also understands that you don’t always need to add an s for plural forms – geese instead of gooses

Also Read:  Exciting News! Language development starts with your unborn baby

Sentences and storytelling

Your child uses active and passive sentences at five years, although they still struggle to understand passive sentences. They will understand – The boy walks to town. But with a passive sentence like The boy was chased by the dog, she will think the boy chased the dog. Pronouns are still tricky since she won’t always know who the pronoun is referring to. It will improve from age six. 

Your child tells more extended and detailed stories, where the actions and events happen in a logical sequence. Events can be imaginary or actual events. She will start to use linking words like because, then now, when, before, while, and although. Your child uses different sentence types and uses pronouns like he, she, and they in her stories. She distinguishes between fact and theory. Thus understanding the difference between What happened and Why do you think…? She will leave out less important details and focus more on the setting and plot. She can also connect links and causes for events, e.g., the food burned, so they had to eat at the diner. 

If your family is bilingual, your child might take longer to reach certain milestones. It is because she is learning words in more than one language. But she should have closed this gap halfway through primary school.  

When should you get help for your child?

Developmental milestones are only meant as guidelines. It makes it hard for parents to know if their child’s development is within the normal range. The guidelines below can help you to decide if your child needs help.

3 -4 years 

  • She doesn’t communicate through speech.
  • It is hard to understand her when she talks to you, family, or friends.
  • She is not using the language skills she used before. 

5 – 6 years

  • She is hard to understand when she talks and doesn’t use complete sentences.
  • It is hard for her to follow two-step directions.
  • She is not using a language skill she has acquired before. 

What help is available?

Speech-language pathologists (SLP)

SLPs assist with language development by helping with her understanding and speech. They will also help to get your child ready for reading and writing. Treatment can be one-on-one or in small groups. The SLP can also give you tips on what to do to help your child at home.

The aspects of language that an SLP will focus on can be:

  • To improve your child’s understanding of language and her early reading and writing skills.
  • Helps her with expressing her thoughts through words.
  • Show you how to help your child at home and how to talk to her.
  • She teaches your child various ways of communication, for example, gestures, picture boards, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) – the use of computers to say words out loud.

What can you do to help your child? 

Follow best practices when communicating with your child, even if you have no reason to suspect any problems.

  • Always make eye contact and get her attention before speaking to her.
  • Stay calm and speak clearly.
  • Use simple language appropriate to the age of your child.
  • Repeat back or model what she said.
  • Repeat their sentences, but at the same time extend them so that they can hear correct sentence use.
  • Interact with her by describing and commenting on what she/you are doing.
  • Take time to listen to her. It will encourage her to talk more often. When she responds to you, be patient and give her plenty of time to find the right words. 
  • Show her how to use gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions in communication. 
  • Encourage her to use all her senses and describe what she sees, hears, smells, and feels.
  • Use positive feedback and praise her for every accomplishment.
  • Teach her new words by saying them and explaining their meaning. You can also use it in a sentence to help her understand. Start teaching her synonyms, like vehicle instead of car

Tips for language development

Use fun activities to engage your child in conversation, and find ways to interact during daily reading times.

  • Have simple conversations about her activities at nursery school or home, and talk to her about what you are doing.
  • Develop her thinking, creative skills, and sense of humour by creating stories together. Take turns to add to the story.
  • As her language development progresses, introduce her to new words and use sentences with more complex grammar structures.
  • During storytime, get her to interact through questions. Point to pictures and ask her to describe them. Also, use your tone of voice to convey the feeling in the story and let her guess what will happen next in the story. 
  • Play a game where you describe something, and she has to guess what it is. For example, we use it to boil water. When she says the right word, let her show you the kettle. Or show her pictures of various items, and let her show you which one doesn’t belong. For example, a collection of fruit and a shoe that doesn’t belong.
  • Make a game to let her practice following two and three-step instructions. Ask her to go to the kitchen and fetch some crisps. As a reward, she gets to eat it, of course!
  • Let her give you directions on how to do something, like how to build a puzzle. 
  • After watching a movie with her, talk about the characters, and let her tell you what happened in the film. Have fun acting out a scene, or work together to find a different ending. 

Conclusion

The preoperational stage is a time of rapid language development. Your child acquires new vocabulary and progresses from two-word to adult-like language sentences. Her understanding of words and language improves, and she can communicate better. It is also the time where you can see how she starts to develop her personality. Now you can help her language development by engaging her in fun games and activities. Remember to write down or record her sayings – it will be irreplaceable memories to look back on when she has grown up.

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