Support your primary-aged child’s understanding of words and sentences

 Tips for supporting understanding of words and sentences in children aged five to 11 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 wash the dishes, then we’ll drive to Nana’s’. 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 your lego back in the cupboard, go upstairs 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 got here 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 bed, 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 my child’s understanding? 

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

Turn off the TV and music while you’re chatting together. It can be difficult for children to listen and understand what you are saying if there are a lot of distractions or background noise. Turn off music and the TV for a while to have some quiet times when you talk or play together. 

Follow your child’s interests. Children are more likely to listen when you’re talking about what interests them. Notice what your child is 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 your child’s understanding and can work better than asking your child 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 your child learn the new 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). Talk about it again over the next few days. Over time, as your child hears the word in other situations such as the news on television, they will build up their understanding of what it means and how to use it.  Have a look at our factsheet on helping your child learn new words for more information. 

‘Chunking’. You can support your child to understand long sentences by breaking them down into chunks. For example, ‘find your maths book and put it in your bag’, ‘check you’ve got your pencil and rubber in your bag’, ‘put your bag by the front door ready to go’. Try asking your child to repeat the steps back to you to check they’ve understood. 

Use visuals. Using real objects, pictures and actions will make it easier for your child to understand as they can hear what you’re saying and see it at the same time. For example, if you’re helping them with their homework about volcanos, you could draw a picture together so you can add the ‘lava’ coming out and the ‘crater’ as you talk about them. Then you could look online for videos and photos and talk about what’s happening as you watch the volcano ‘erupting’.  

Give your child thinking time. It is important to leave gaps or pauses when talking with your child – 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 your child to think and answer.   

Help your child 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 your 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, if your child is struggling to answer a why question such as, ‘Why is the pig running away?’, you could ask simpler questions like ‘What is the wolf doing?’ (huffing and puffing) and ‘What happened next?’ (the house blew down). Then, help your child answer: ‘So the pig is running away because…?’ (because the wolf blew his house down). If they still have trouble answering, you can just say the correct answer for them (e.g. ‘The pig is running away because the wolf blew his house down’). 

Encourage your child to tell you when they haven’t understood. Show them how to do this by saying things like ‘I’m not sure what you mean’, or ‘Could you say that again?’ when you don’t understand something. Praise your child when they say things like this themselves. It is important for your child to be able to do this in other situations like at school, so talk to your child’s teacher about other ways to encourage this. 

Find out what words or topics your child is learning about at school. Ask your child’s teacher for a list of words or pictures that they are using. Spend five minutes a few times a week chatting about these with your child. Talking together about new words again and again will help your child understand and remember them. 

Share books together. You can use books with and without pictures. Talk about the story, making comments like ‘I really like the part where….’ or ‘I think she was sad because…’. Then, wait for a few seconds to give your child time to think and make their own comment.  

Using ‘I wonder…’ is a good way of starting a conversation about the story without the pressure of asking your child a question. For example, ‘I wonder what might happen next…’ or ‘I wonder why they are so tired…’. Wait to give your child some thinking time before you carry on.  

Your child might need some help to tell you what they are thinking, so go back to the pictures (if there are any) to look for clues. You can also help by starting off their sentence, saying something like, ‘First they built a straw house, then who came along?’.  

Don’t be afraid to tell a story more than once. Hearing stories many times helps children to understand and remember new words. For more ideas, have a look at our factsheet on supporting your child’s storytelling skills.   

Help your child understand time words. Words like ‘first’, ‘next’, ‘later’, ‘yesterday’, ‘tomorrow’ are used to talk about when things happen, but they are often hard for children to understand at first. You can help by modelling how to use these words correctly yourself – for example, ‘Remember yesterday when we went to the park?’.