Refine by


Early Language Development

By Michael Maloney, M.A.

It is difficult to underestimate the crucial importance of language development on the future well being of any child. From the beginnings of educational psychology, language has been an important benchmark in ascertaining intellectual and social development. Since Alfred Binet first added language tasks to tests of intelligence in 1905, language development has been recognized as an important factor in intellectual development.

The federally sponsored Follow-Through research program of the 1970s, still the largest educational study ever done in the Western world, involved hundreds of thousands of children over more than twenty years at a cost of more than two billion dollars. It compared sixteen different methods which claimed to assist underprivileged children to succeed at school. Only one model exceeded all expectations. That method, Direct Instruction, was developed by Siegfried Engelmann and his colleagues at University of Oregon. It incorporated a formal language program as an important part of the remediation of children at risk of school failure in the primary grades.

A recent book, Meaningful Differences, by Hart and Risley contains extensive language development research over many years. It clearly describes the effects of different levels of language acquisition on the learning and language of young children. As expected, there is a direct correlation between the richness of the language environment and the educational and social well being of the child. Children from enriched language environments succeeded while children from impoverished language environments lagged behind in educational and social skills.

Parents often wonder if they are doing enough to ensure that their children learn language skills well. They are also constantly looking for ways to ensure adequate language development especially in the early years.

Here are some of the strategies used in the Oregon model to assist language development.

Statement Repetition

Having children learn to speak in complete sentences enhances their language skills. Statements can be modeled for them about everyday events or as part of a more formal language class. Answering simple questions in complete sentences provides abundant opportunity for informal language development. (E.g. Look at the pony. What is the pony doing? Eating grass. Listen. The pony is eating grass. Say that. The pony is eating grass. Good speaking in sentences. What color is the pony? etc.)

Doing Actions

Children demonstrate that they understand language concepts by following simple instructions. Touch your eye. Good. Tell me what you are doing. I am touching my eye. Good, now touch your eyes. Etc. As children become competent with simple instructions, more complex ones can be introduced. (E.g. Stand up and touch your eye. Good. Say a sentence about what you did. I standed up and touched my eye. Yes, you did. Listen to me say that. I stood up and touched my eye. Say that with me. Good. Now say that all by yourself. Nice going). Such actions can also be used to teach different tenses. (e.g. What are you doing now? I am standing up and touching my eye. Very good. What were you doing? I was sitting down).

Actions can be used to teach concepts by teaching examples of the concept and non-examples of a concept. (e.g. Are you standing up? Yes, I am standing up. Am I standing up? No, you are sitting down).

There are numerous action songs that children love to sing that can be used for teaching them to follow simple and complex instructions.


Personal Information

There are lots of reasons for children to learn a wealth of personal information. Simple statements like their full name and address, (e.g. My name is Michael Maloney, I live at -) their age, birth date, telephone number, parents' names, school, are useful if they should ever become lost. Other more elaborate personal information gives the better connections to their environment, family, and culture. Lists of personal facts can easily be constructed and taught to kindergartners as part of their language development.

Teaching Parts and Wholes

Learning to name objects and their parts adds a lot of information to a child's language base. It allows them to express themselves more specifically and to understand more complex ideas. Part-whole statements can involve simple objects like a toothbrush or complex objects like a car. Pictures of the objects from catalogs, flyers and other books provide a ready store of examples. (E.g. Look at the toothbrush. Touch each part and say: Let's name the parts of a toothbrush. A toothbrush has a handle. Say that. A toothbrush has a handle. Great. A toothbrush has bristles. Say that. A toothbrush has bristles. Yes, and what do you call the whole thing? A toothbrush.)


Teaching Classes and Classification

Children need to be able to classify objects and events into categories in order to better understand their expanding world. Sesame Street types of activities which display examples and non-examples of a class help children learn to classify objects, ideas, and events. A presentation of birds and animals which are not birds teaches children to discriminate between animal types and to classify animals into groups. Sometimes a rule about the group to be classified helps as well. (e.g. Listen. All birds have two feet and a beak. Most birds have wings. Is this a bird?).

Children learn language best when they are provided good language models and when they are listened to as they attempt to express themselves. Learning a language is at times frustrating to them, because it is difficult, and there is so much to learn. Be gentle. Be patient, and above all, listen.


Michael Maloney, M.A., is a former public school teacher, principal, and educational psychologist.  He is the best-selling, award-winning author of Teach Your Children Well, creator of the award-winning software series Scholastic’s Math Tutor, and creator of the Teach Your Children Arithmetic Well software series.  He was a winner of the National Literacy Educator Award in 2001.


Copyright 2003.
Originally appeared in Spring 2003. Used with permission.
The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.



 Visit the Teach Your Children Well Store


 By Michael Maloney, M.A.


Homeschool Article Center