Support primary-aged children’s understanding of words and sentences

Tips for professionals: supporting understanding of words and sentences in children aged five to eleven years. 

How do children develop skills in understanding words and sentences? 

Children learn to understand words and sentences gradually over time. This starts when they are still babies, for example when they begin to notice that their parent or caregiver says the word ‘bath’ every time they turn on the taps. Over time, as they hear more talking, children start to understand more and more words and sentences. Children need to hear a word many times in lots of different situations before they fully understand it. 

In typical development: 

  • By 5 years, most children will understand words like ‘first and ‘next’ in a sentence, for example, ‘first we’ll put our coats on, then we’ll go outside to play’. They will usually also understand words to describe position such as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘between’.  
  • By 7 years, children will generally understand requests with lots of steps. For example, ‘put the books back in the cupboard, go to your pegs and find your swimming things’. They may also understand that different words have the same meaning, for example ‘minus’, ‘subtract’ and ‘take away’. 
  • By 9 years, many children will understand more complicated words that compare things such as time or size. For example, ‘that’s the longest one’, ‘we finished lunch earlier than yesterday’.  
  • By 11 years, most children will understand a wide range of words in long sentences with many parts. For example, ‘get the felt tip pens from the plastic box under my desk, find the newest black felt tip and test to see if it works before you bring it to me’. By this age, children will usually also have an understanding of other ways we use language such as humour or sarcasm.  

How can I support children’s understanding? 

Get a child’s attention before talking to them. Make it easy for children to listen by giving them your full attention and talking face to face. Say a child’s name to get their attention before saying something else. 

Follow children’s interests. Children are more likely to listen when you’re talking about what interests them. Notice what children are interested in and talk to them about it (e.g. ‘wow, that plane is flying really high above the clouds’, or ‘you were running so fast in that race’). This helps build up children’s understanding and can work better than asking children lots of questions.  

Repeat words again and again. Children need to hear a new word lots of times in lots of different situations before they learn it properly. For example, you could help children to learn the word ‘government’ by talking about it in sentences like, ‘we vote to decide which government is in charge’, ‘the government meets in the Houses of Parliament’ (show a photo). Have a look at our info page on helping children learn new words for more information. 

Break long requests into chunks. Help children to understand long requests by breaking them down into chunks. For example, ‘Open your books and turn to page 9’, ‘Now answer question 8 and then bring your books to me’. If you aren’t sure that a child has understood, try asking them to repeat the steps back to you (e.g. ‘Tell me what you’re going to do now’). 

Use visuals. Using real objects, pictures and actions will make it easier for children to understand because they can hear what you’re saying and see it at the same time. For example, if you’re learning about volcanos, draw a picture together with the ‘lava’ coming out and the ‘crater’ as you talk about them. Look online for videos and talk about what’s happening as you watch the volcano ‘erupting’.  

Give children thinking time. It is important to leave gaps or pauses when talking with children – it gives them time to think about and understand what you have said. Try counting to five in your head after saying something to allow enough time for the child to think and answer.   

Help children to answer questions. Children develop their understanding of questions over time. This starts with easier questions like who, where, what and then builds up to harder questions like why and how 

If a child is struggling to answer a more difficult question, you can try asking simpler questions to help them focus on the important information. For example, to help a child answer, ‘Why is the pig running away?’, you could ask, ‘What is the wolf doing?’ (huffing and puffing) and ‘What happened next?’ (the house blew down). Then, ‘So the pig is running away because…?’ (because the wolf blew his house down). If they are still struggling, say the correct answer for them (e.g. ‘The pig is running away because the wolf blew his house down’). 

Encourage children to tell you when they haven’t understood. It is important for children to be able to ask for help when they haven’t understood something. Create an asking-friendly environment by responding positively when children ask questions or tell you they don’t understand  (e.g. ‘Well done for asking for help’, ‘I’m really pleased you told me you didn’t understand’).  

Include parents/carers.  Share information with parents/carers about what their child is learning at school. Send home lists of words or pictures that children are learning so that parents/carers can practise these at home, too. Encourage parents/carers to repeat new words again and again in different sentences and different situations to help their child to remember them.  

Encourage parents/carers to share books together with their child at home. Encourage parents/carers to just chat to their child about the story rather than asking too many questions. They could make comments like ‘I really like the part where….’ or ‘I think she was sad because…’. Saying, ‘I wonder…’ is a good way of starting a conversation without the pressure of asking a question. For example, ‘I wonder what might happen next…’ or ‘I wonder why they are so tired…’. Encourage them to wait to give their child some thinking time before they carry on.