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Verbs: what are they good for? How do children learn about them?

I’ve been reading a lot about the concerns over children’s health lifestyles and the long term impact of these. As a tangent this led me on to thinking about activity and movement, which led me on to verbs (naturally). So, this instalment is dedicated to the sometimes overlooked subject of verbs.

What is a verb?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a verb as ‘a word that describes what a person does or what happens’. For example:

  • An action – kick, run, wash, read
  • An event – rain, occur
  • A situation or state – be, seem, have
  • A change – grow, become, develop (all activities)

How do children learn verbs?

We often focus on learning object labels/nouns to support children's development but verbs are a vital building block. Dr Twomey from the LuCiD group of researchers has  described learning verbs as more of a challenge:

Nouns are easy: it’s not surprising that the first object names babies learn are for the objects they see and interact with on a day-to-day basis, like shoebottle, and blanket. Verbs are more of a challenge, though, because verbs refer to actions, which may only be visible for a short space of time (e.g., throw) – if at all (e.g., like). 

Twomey’s research has focused on how children learn verbs more from what they hear than what they see. Children develop their understanding of verbs first, like their understanding of object nouns, by hearing them used around them in context. For example, the repetition of ‘wash your face’ or ‘we’re brushing our teeth’, ‘reading your book’ allows them to associate the verb with the action it describes and also learning that another word usually follows it. Often they learn the verbs for the everyday actions they hear around them.

This brings me back to my original thought that children learn the words for actions they do and see around them.

Verbs: the building blocks of language

Extending and expanding children's  language

Gradually, children gain a knowledge of nouns and verbs and start to combine these together e.g. ‘wash face’, ‘kick ball’, ‘eat banana’ or ‘me eat’, ‘mummy drive’.  Verbs are one of the building blocks that help children expand and extend their language from using words on their own to two word combinations. So they need to be able to understand and use a range of verbs to help them combine nouns and verbs.

As children develop their language skills (usually at around 3 year old) they start to form sentences that are made up of a subject, verb, object e.g. ‘me kick ball’, ‘Daddy eating toast’.  Find out more about the stages children go through learning language here.

Verbs tell us about when something happened

However, there’s still lots to learn about verbs so that children can express what’s happened in the past, the future. Children need to learn about how the ending of a verb changes it's meaning.  Twomey’s research supports the idea that children learn these from hearing them being used.

Some children struggle

Children who struggle with language can find learning and using verb difficult. This may be down to the aural nature of learning them. Children with language difficulties may struggle to make sense of what they hear and so find it difficult to both acquire verbs and also learn verb endings. If you're worried about a child's talking you can see how they're doing here and find out different ways to help them.

You can also speak to one of I CAN's speech and language therapists.

How can we help?

  • We can use a range of verbs when talking with children so that we are modelling the diversity of these to support vocabulary development.
  • Repeating what we say so that children have a chance to hear words repeatedly.
  • Modelling verb endings so that older children have an opportunity to learn about different tenses and different forms of endings.  Combining this with doing the action helps children to build up associations in their minds between the verb, the ending and the meaning.
  • Some children who struggle may have a targeted programme developed by a speech and language therapist to support them with their use of verbs.

Reflecting on practice

  • Do you focus on verbs as well as nouns in your planning? Including it in planning may mean it’s more likely to happen.
  • Do you use a range of verbs so that children have an opportunity to hear them modelled?
  • Are there any ways you could use a wider range of verbs? Or do the children you are supporting need opportunities for repetition and reminders.
  • Do you add verbs to your commentary as you’re playing and supporting children? This gives them the opportunity to hear the label for what they’re doing.

About the Author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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