Pronoun Acquisition in Young Children

Pronoun Acquisition in Young Children

When do children master pronouns?

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun.  Pronouns carry a tremendous amount of information in our verbal exchanges.  The sentence “They gave him her shirt” would be impossible to understand or communicate if you didn’t know what each pronoun was referring to.

As children develop language, pronoun errors are to be expected. We’ve all heard young children say things like “me want that” or “her is running”.  Mastery of all, or most, pronouns typically happens by ages 4-5 and they tend to emerge in a fairly predictable order which is depicted on our Pronouns Acquisition infographic. 

 Image of a vine with pronoun development by age group next to it

Difficulty acquiring pronouns is common in young children, especially those experiencing language delays. A child’s ability to understand instructions, sentences, stories and conversational flow can be significantly impacted if they don’t know who or what the pronouns are referring to.  The same can be said about a child’s ability to share ideas, make requests or talk about past events.

It’s good to help children master pronouns as expected for their age so that they can be successful communicators.


Ten Teaching Tips for Pronouns

  1. Make sure to have toys on hand that lend themselves to using pronouns such as Little People, magnetic dress up dolls, or a toy family.
  2. Begin by modeling pronouns in play for the child to hear. Really stress the pronouns by saying them a bit louder and with emphasis.  You can even point to the “person” you’re referring to as an added piece of information. 
  3. Explicitly state the grammatical rule(s) from time to time. For example, you could explain that we say “he” for boys, “she” for girls and “they” when there is more than one person.
  4. Check to see if the child understands specific pronouns by asking them to do something and then observe their response. For example, you could ask the child to give the cookie to her, give you his coat or put them to bed and see what they do.  It’s unlikely the child will use pronouns correctly if they don’t understand them first.
  5. Fix any pronouns errors you hear the child make by modelling the correct way to say that phrase with pronouns. Stress or emphasize the pronoun(s) you corrected.
  6. Sometimes, you can repeat their incorrect phrase/pronoun so they can hear that it doesn’t sound right. For example, you can repeat “me want that” and ask the child if that sounds right and then go on to model the correct way to say it.  Young children are not always able to monitor their own speech-langauge and may think they are saying things exactly the way you are.
  7. Ask the child to repeat your model when possible or appropriate. You may not want to do this if it will continually interrupt the flow of play or conversation.  A prime time to use this strategy is when the child is requesting something or just making a short comment. 
  8. Set them up for success. You can help them use the correct pronoun by giving 2 pronoun choices while pointing to the male/female figurines.  For example, you could ask “Should I give this to him or to her?” or “Is he going swimming or is she going swimming?”
  9. Provide brief, focused and repetitive practice opportunities if you think the child is ready for this. You can do things like looking at action pictures and stating what the people are doing (he is running, she is sitting), giving food item to figurines and stating who gets it (he gets the apple, she gets the banana), place items with a boy/girl and state whose it is (the coat is his, the dog is hers
  10. Praise children when you hear them use a previously difficult pronoun correctly. You can say something like “Great job using she to talk about the girl” and tell them how it helped you to understand their message.

Always keep the tone light and positive.  Find fun and meaningful ways to highlight and use pronouns.  Remember, it can take weeks, even months to help children master new pronouns so patience and repetition is in order. 

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