What You Need To Know: Early Sentence Development
Updated: Aug 26
It’s a major milestone in language development when a child starts to combine words to form simple sentences, like “big dog”, “I want nana”, or “come Mommy.” This big step allows children to express more than one idea at a time, and it suddenly becomes easier to figure out what they’re trying to tell us!
A recent study looked at children’s first words and first word combinations, and whether delays in either of these language milestones predicted later language problems. Interestingly, children who were late to combine words (aka form early sentences) were more at risk for future problems with language than children who were late with their first words.
You might wonder when your child should start using sentences and how you can help your child build early sentences. Whether your child is typically developing or delayed in his or her language development, here are some answers to questions you may have about early sentence development.
When should children start using sentences?
By 24 months, children should be combining two words together, like “want ball”, “more cookie”, or “Daddy up." While these “word combinations” aren’t quite sentences yet, they show us that children have figured out that they can string two ideas together with their words. By 30 months, your child should start to use early sentences. When children start to use these early sentences, we know they are on the path towards adult-like sentences.
If your child is not yet combining words to make simple sentences, it’s possible that he or she does not have a large enough vocabulary to be able to combine words. We know from research that children typically do not start combining two words together (like “my ball”) until they have at least 50 words in their vocabulary. And even then, there must be a wide range of different types of words in their vocabulary. If your child only knows 50 nouns, he or she is not going to be able to combine those words in many different ways that make sense. “Cookie ball” doesn’t really tell us much. A child’s early vocabulary must include nouns, verbs, descriptors, possessives (like “my”), negatives (like “no”), demonstratives (like “that”), question words (like “what”), etc.
If your child has a limited vocabulary, try working on that as a means of increasing vocabulary and preparing your child for the next steps in language development.
When should I be concerned about my child’s sentence development?
Sentence development begins with having a big enough vocabulary with enough variety of words to begin combining them together. Children are at risk for a potential language delay if they are:
24 months old and using less than 100 words
24 months old and using less than 2 verbs
24 months and not combining two words
If you are concerned about your child’s sentence development, talk to your doctor or a speech language pathologist.
How can I help my child learn to use early sentences?
If your child has at least 50 words in their vocabulary and is using a wide range of different types of words, try using the strategies described below.
Modeling. Try to simplify your own speech to the two word level and use lots of two word phrases yourself! This gives your child lots of opportunities to hear you using two word phrases.
Expansion. Whenever your child uses a word, repeat it back increasing it to a two word utterance. For example, if your child says “dog,” you say, “Yes! Big dog!” You are expanding their one word sentence into a two word sentence.
Slow it down. So, you’re modeling and expanding and still don’t feel like you’re making progress. Make sure you slow it down. We often don’t realize how quickly we’re speaking. Make sure that you slow your speech down to give your child extra processing time.
Use carrier words and phrases. For example, you can teach the word “my.” Once you teach the carrier word, it can then be combined with so many other words. “My shoe," "My hat," "My milk," "My cup," etc. Other common carrier phrases include: “more _____,” “hi/bye ______,” "want ______," and “______ please.”
Try using these strategies in different activities and settings and with different people. Do this when you’re reading books, giving your child a bath, during snacks and meals, during play with toys or during an art activity. The more variety the better!
Earle, C. with Lowry, L. (2015). Making Hanen Happen Leaders Guide for Target WordTM — The Hanen Program® for Parents of Children Who Are Late Talkers, Fourth Edition. Hanen Early Language Program: Toronto, ON.
Hadley P. A. (2006). Assessing the emergence of grammar in toddlers at risk for specific language impairment.Seminars in speech and language, 27(3), 173–186. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2006-948228
Rudolph, J. M. & Leonard, L. B. (2016). Early language milestones and specific language impairment. Journal of Early Intervention, 38(1) 41 –58.