Language Development in Middle Childhood
The foundation of language development is established during the preschool and early elementary school years. School-age children, however, continue to refine their language skills in several domains. For example, their understanding of word meaning, or semantic development, continues throughout middle childhood. A first grader may know the meaning of 8,000 to 14,000 words, but a high-schooler knows 80,000 words (Owens, 1996). These numbers are equivalent to the acquisition of 6,200 words per year between first grade and graduating from high school. The understanding that words have multiple meanings also increases. This more complex understanding of word use may be attributed, in part, to cognitive development.
With the advancement of cognition children become better communicators and possess a more sophisticated sense of humor. A related advancement is that school-age children also begin to comprehend the use of idioms, such as “Who let the cat out of the bag?” Research shows that the comprehension of multiple word use, idioms, and forms of sarcasm may not occur until adolescence (Bloom, 1998). Semantic development in middle childhood seems to rely heavily on the context of the conversation and children’s ability to figure out the meaning of a word or phrase by what another person intended to say, rather than a literal interpretation of word choice (Baumann, Font, Edwards, & Boland, 2005; Cain, Oakhill, & Elbro, 2003).
Syntax development, or grammatical understanding and construction, expands during middle childhood. Children begin to understand the difference between active and passive voice (O’Grady, 1997). If given a toy car and truck and asked to show the experimenter “the car hit the truck” and “the car was hit by the truck,” a 10-year-old is more likely than a 6-year-old to play out the scene of both statements correctly. The older child will listen to the meaning of the statements rather than automatically link the action of the verb to the nearest noun. Older children also begin to understand and use more sophisticated syntactical rules, such as the correct use of subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement, correct uses of that and which to introduce subordinate clauses, and the proper use of punctuation such as colons and semicolons. During middle childhood, children also begin to learn how to use the articles a and the correctly as well as understand connectives, such as but, although, yet, however, and unless (Vion & Colas, 2004).
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