Track your child's language skills into the teen years

We used to think that once a child learned to pronounce all of the sounds of our language; learned language structures like plurals and verb tense; and could ask questions and speak complex sentences, speech and language learning was complete. Now we know this is not true. That is just the beginning. Language learning is ongoing throughout life.

As a child ages, language moves from the representational (i.e., the literal) to the figurative (i.e., non-literal), when it includes more metaphors, idioms, and inferences, for example. Language use becomes more sophisticated. The competent language user is adept in many complex areas, such as argument and persuasion.

The complexity of written material (e.g., fiction books, textbooks, papers, etc.) follows this same progression. As a child moves through school, books move from the literal to the non-literal. Just like context determines what words you use and how you communicate (i.e., you don’t speak to your best friend the same way you speak with your professor), reading more advanced and different types (or genres) of text requires sophisticated skills and understanding.

It is around 3rd or 4th grade when we talk about the school curriculum moving from an emphasis on "learning to read" to one of "reading to learn". After having spent the early years learning how to read; now the students are expected to know how to read and to use those skills to extract more complicated information from texts. Their language development and reading skills play an important part in this learning.

The following table highlights some of the oral language and literacy skills that emerge as we age. You can use this list to help you identify the skills that your child has achieved as well as the ones that have not yet developed. If you have concerns, you can take this information and share it with a professional such as your child's teacher, a speech-language pathologist, or a medical practitioner. The two of you can begin a conversation as to how best to help your child develop the needed skills in order to ensure success.

Typical Age





15–18 years

Language is used to maintain friendships and other social bonds

Skills for persuasion and making arguments are near-adult

Average vocabulary is 10,000 words by graduation

Sentence length and complexity for written language are greater than in spoken language

Is able to use most grammar rules correctly

Knowledge of morphophonological rules (sounds and word parts) reaches adult level

12–14 years

Most frequently reads and writes expository texts in school

Is able to give abstract, dictionary-like definitions for words

Increased use of adverbial phrases (ex. "I did my homework after I ate dinner.")

Can explain the meaning of proverbs within context (ex. "A picture paints a thousand words)

Increased use of the perfect tense (have/had) (ex. "I have seen the movie" vs. "I saw the movie")

Sentence structures in writing are more complex than in spoken language

Understands that different stress patterns change the meaning of a word/phrase (ex. yellowjacket vs. yellow jacket)

9–12 years

Stories are complex and include embedded or interactive story lines

Presents most information for school in expository formats ("reports" rather than "stories")

Clearer understanding of jokes and riddles

Vocabulary needed for school is more abstract and specific than in conversation

Students are required to "read to learn"

Can explain the relationships between meanings of multiple-meaning words (ex. a "tie" that you wear is a noun, but "tie" your shoe is a verb)

Understands common idioms (ex. "It knocked my socks off!")

Sentence structures used in school texts are more complex than in speech

Is able to vary word order within sentences in writing (ex. "The movie was very funny." vs "It was a very funny movie.")

Morphophonological knowledge (understanding sounds and word parts) develops and is used in spelling (ex. "s" or "es" for plurals, "ed" for past tense)

Metacognitive skills (thinking about thinking) develop (ex. knowing to ask for repetitions, problem-solving, judging his/her own success)

7–9 years

Stories contain complete episodes with motivations, internal thoughts of characters, and character reactions

Language is used as a way to establish and maintain friendships

Improved understanding of other people's perspectives, which allows for improved persuasion abilities

Corrects misunderstandings in conversation by defining words or giving background information

Begins to understand jokes and riddles based on words that sound similar

Starts learning new words in school that are not used in typical conversation (ex. "photosynthesis")

Can define words using synonyms and categories (ex. a cougar is an animal that looks like a big cat)

Starts to understand that words can have multiple meanings (ex. a "tie" that you wear and "tie" a knot)

Improved ability to use figurative language (ex. similes, metaphors)

Must be able to read and write to participate in school

Still has grammar errors in spoken language (ex. We gone to the library yesterday.)

No longer has articulation errors but may have trouble saying complex or long words (ex. "aluminum")

Uses knowledge of phonics for "creative" spelling (i.e. spells "fight" as "fite")

Can complete sound manipulation activities (i.e. can follow directions to say "farm" without the "f")

5–7 years

Narratives are true “stories” with a central focus, climax, and resolution (ex. Beginning, middle, end with a problem and solution)

Average expressive vocabulary is 5,000 words

Vocabulary is more easily generalized to new uses for the same word

Uses and understands passive sentences (ex. The boy was chased by the dog.)

Begin to learn exceptions to rules of grammar (ex. the plural of "mouse" is "mice" rather than "mouses")

Errors in articulation are resolving

Beginning to segment words into individual sounds (ex. Is able to break the word "stop" to "s-t-o-p")

Adapted from: Paul, Rhea. (2001). Language disorders from infancy through adolescence. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

Additional information for developmental milestones of phonological awareness skills is available over at Reading Rockets.