Sentences: Part 1 of 3: Structure, Processing, Function

Sentences Structure

“Sentence” is the next unit of oral language that provides a basis for learning to read and reading to learn. Developmentally, the “average” child begins to put words together to form “sentences” by age 2. What do children know about sentences as they begin to put them together? They don’t know the names of the parts of speech that make up sentences (nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc., or the role of those in sentences as subjects, objects…etc.), but they do learn that there are certain kinds of words that go together (nouns and verbs, nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs). As they continue to develop, their sentences grow longer and more complex.

 I am going to write about sentences in terms of three dimensions: structure, process(ing) and function. I’m going to begin with structure because structure (form/grammar) is often the way sentences are approached in school.


A few sites are helpful for the purposes of this blog. First is a chapter on Language Development by Amanda C. Brandone, Sara J. Salkind, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff,U. of Delaware and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University

On Language Development. (It was not clear from the link which book contained this chapter)  In this chapter, the authors use content, form, and use as their framework for discussing language development. They write:

 To better address typical and atypical language development as well as strategies of prevention and intervention, the five structural components of language– phonology, semantics, syntax, morphology, and pragmatics–. may be simplified into three essential aspects of communication: content, form, and use (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). Content refers to the semantics of language—the concepts and ideas that are encoded in words. Form is the way in which meaning is represented, including speech, sign language, and writing. In the context of spoken language, form encompasses phonology, morphology, and syntax. Finally, use refers to the function of language in context. Although each of these aspects of language can be identified separately, they are inherently interconnected elements in communication (Bloom & Lahey). Language problems may arise when there is a disruption within anyone component of the model or in their integration. The following sections consider the typical development of each of these aspects of language.”

 Language Development

This link shows overall language development, but there are several references to the development of sentences:

 “The next crucial milestone in the development of language form occurs when the child discovers that rule-based combinations of words actually express more than the meaning of any of the individual words. For example,

by 17 months children are able to discriminate between ‘‘Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird’’ and ‘‘Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster’’ (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff,1996). Comprehension of these rule-based combinations comes prior to production using these rules. Children begin to combine words into two-word utterances (e.g., ‘‘car go’’ and ‘‘more juice’’) between 18 and 24 months. These early word combinations express meaningful relationships yet tend to be missing function words (the, a), auxiliary verbs (am, is, has), and the bound morphemes that mark plural (s), possessive (-’s), or tense (-ing,-ed). As children learn to combine words into longer sequences, they add the function words and bound morphemes that were absent from their first…”

 Their Milestone charts show language development of content, form, and use. Note here the reference to syntax/sentence development across charts.

12-18 mos.

Semantic roles are expressed in one-word speech, including agent, action, object, location, possession, rejection, disappearance, nonexistence, denial.

Words are understood outside of routine games; still need contextual support for lexical comprehension.

18–24 mos.

Average expressive vocabulary size: 200–300 words at 24 mos.

Prevalent relations expressed: agent–action, agent–object, action–object, action–location, entity–location, possessor–possession, demonstrative–entity, attribute-entity.

^Understands basic semantic roles and relations; two word utterances and two syllable words emerge

^Utterances are telegraphic with few grammatical markers

24–30 mos.

Understanding and use of questions about objects (What?), people (Who?), and basic events (What is x doing? Where is x going?

^Use of no, not, don’t as negation between subject and verb; Use of sentences with semi-auxiliaries—gonna, wanna).

30–36 mos.

Use and understand Why? questions.

36–42 mos.

Use and understand semantic relationship between adjacent and conjoined sentences, including additive, temporal, causal, contrastive.

^Present tense auxiliaries appear; be verbs used inconsistently

42–48 mos.

Use and understand ‘‘when’’ and ‘‘how’’ questions.

Use conjunctions and as well as because to conjoin sentences.

^Early emerging complex sentences types, including full prepositional clauses, hi clauses, simple infinitives

48–60 mos.

Use conjunctions when, so, because ,and if

 “…Although most grammatical structures are in place by the age of 5, children continue to acquire more complex forms and rules of grammar in the school setting….”

 …” For most children, the development of language proceeds without difficulty. By the age of 5, typically developing children have mastered the building blocks of the system and are left only to refine and integrate their skills in order to use language in an increasingly complex range of tasks. During the course of the development of language, there is a tremendous range of what can be considered normal.” [Use of bold print mine.]

…”Through interaction with family, peers, teachers, and caregivers, children learn communicative competence, or how to use language appropriately and strategically in social situations (Hymes, 1967). Because we use language for so many purposes, many skills are involved in communicative competence (see Becker-Bryant, 2001)…”

 “Children need to learn to ask questions, make requests, give orders, express agreement or disagreement, apologize, refuse, joke, praise, and tell stories. They must learn social routines (such as saying ‘‘Trick or treat’’ on

Halloween), terms of politeness, and ways to address others. Children must also understand how to initiate, maintain, and conclude conversations, as well as take turns, provide and respond effectively to feedback, and stay on-topic. Crucially, they must learn to be sensitive to their audience and to the situations in which they are communicating. Sophistication in pragmatics continues to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood. [bold mine]

 Some additional references for sentence form/syntax:

Some resources posted on the Brandone et. al. link:

The public page of the website for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association offers resources to help all audiences better understand communication and communication disorders. It also provides links to early intervention references and professional referral services for access to qualified care.

The Bamford-Lahey Children’s Foundation is a foundation dedicated to conducting and supporting programs that will enhance the linguistic, cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The Foundation’s current focus is improving the language development of children with language difficulties.

This website provides a thorough list of references on language disorders as well as information relevant to the goal of developing guidelines on evidence-based practices in child language disorders

 And two other google search links:

Language Development; short; commercial

Images for syntax development

 Part 2 of the Sentence Series is on sentence processing.




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