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Reasons to be verbal: the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of learning verbs

Last week I overheard an early years professional talking to a colleague about ‘active thinking’. I wasn’t part of the conversation so didn’t ask for clarification but, as ever, my own brain got to thinking what active thinking might mean and what it might include. 

As is so often the case, this led me to more thinking and from there came this blog about action words!

If, like me, you went to school when action words were called verbs, then you will already be aware that a verb can be classified as:

  • An action – push, walk, drink, 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 teaching object labels/nouns to support children's development but verbs are a vital foundation in children’s language learning.

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 they refer to actions, which may only be visible for a short space of time (e.g., throw) – if visible at all (e.g., like). 

Twomey’s research suggests children learn verbs more from what they hear than what they see. The research goes on to say that, just like their understanding of object names, children develop their understanding of verbs first by hearing them used by the key care givers around them in context.

For example, the repetition of ‘wash your face’ or ‘we’re brushing our teeth’, ‘reading your book’ etc. allows them to associate the verb with the action it describes and learning that another word usually follows it. Often, they learn the verbs for the everyday actions they hear adults using frequently.

Verbs: the building blocks of language

Extending and expanding children’s language

Gradually, children gain the knowledge of nouns and verbs they need 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. They move from using single words 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 they start to form sentences that consist of 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 when and what has happened

After the using them to build their first sentences however, there’s still lots to learn about verbs so that children can express what’s happened in the past and use them to refer to the future. Children also need to learn about how the ending of a verb changes its meaning. Twomey’s research supports the idea that children learn these from hearing them being used in their everyday lives.

Some children struggle

Children who struggle with language can find learning and using verbs challenging. This may be down to the aural (i.e. hearing) nature of learning them. Children with language difficulties may struggle to make sense of what they hear and so find it difficult to acquire verbs and 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 by contacting our Enquiry Service.

How can you help?

  • You can use a range of verbs when talking with children so that you are modelling these to support vocabulary development
  • Repeating what you say so children have several chances to hear what you need them to hear
  • Modelling verb endings so older children have an opportunity to learn about different tenses and different forms of endings. You can combine this by doing the action to help children build up associations in their minds between the verb, the ending and the meaning.
  • Some children who struggle may also 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.


Like so many aspects of learning language, actions speak louder than words. Adults can reflect on and make changes to their practice through ‘active thinking’. We can support children to learn about action words through multiple sensory experiences, ensuring doing it is as important as seeing it done. We can share in children’s fun with learning new verbs and how they help to make us better communicators, one action at a time.

Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. You can contact Jon directly on I CAN’s Enquiry Service by calling 0207 843 2544 or sending an email to 

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