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Building sentences

Why it’s important

Building sentences begin after children learn to link single words together. This happens alongside their vocabulary development.

Children need to know around 50 words before they can start building sentences.

How young children learn to build sentences

They listen to others. Often this skill develops quickly after learning to link 2 or 3 words together. Children will make lots of mistakes and rely on adults to correct sentences and in a supportive way appropriate to their age and stage of development.

Once children can speak in sentences, they can make requests, comment, ask and answer questions. Their sentences become increasingly complex and more detailed as they hear and read more complex language.

How they learn and develop complex language

This includes skills, knowledge and accuracy of:

  • parts of language, for example, pronouns
  • tense linked to their concept of time
  • formulation of questions
  • language purpose, for example, clarification, summary, explanation, planning, persuasion.

Young people also learn to:

  • explain the rules of grammar
  • consider the interests of their listener
  • use intonation to indicate meaning within a sentence or phrase.

Children produce longer, more grammatically complex spoken sentences before they can produce written sentences.

What to expect at each age milestone

Choose the age range below to find out how children develop their building sentences skills. You’ll also find suggested activities that will help your child/a child you’re teaching/caring for to develop their skills.


What to expect

Children of this age will begin joining 2 words together , for example, ‘more juice’, ‘daddy gone’, ‘sleep bed.’

Activities that help develop their skills

Describe pictures or actions

Encourage children to describe pictures, their own actions or those of others using 2 word phrases, for example, ‘brush hair’, ‘man walking.’ If they give a one word answer, show the need for more information, for example:

Child: ‘Brush’

Adult: ‘Brush feet? No! Brush ……’ and give your child chance to respond

Play follow the leader

Take turns to be the leader with the child and give 2 word commands for the other person to follow, for example touch nose, open door, shake leg.

Encourage children to be more specific when making a choice, for example:

Child: ‘Cake’
Adult: ‘Which cake?’
Child: ‘Big cake’

Demonstrate and emphasise 2 key word phrases

Try this during daily routines, for example, when a child dresses. Possible 2 word sentence include, ‘shoes on’, ‘coat on’.

Go through a doll or teddy’s parts of the body, for example, ‘let’s wash their nose’, ‘let’s wash their arms’, ‘wash tummy.’ Then ‘dry feet’, ‘dry hair.’

You could also try imaginary play and varying verbs, for example:

  • ‘push dolly’
  • ‘cuddle dolly’
  • ‘dolly sleep’
  • ‘dolly jump.’

Make a book

Use pictures of words the child uses. Label the pictures using 2 words, for example,‘blue ball’. Alternatively make a book together with pictures of people or animals doing things.


What to expect

Children can join 3 to 4 words together in a sentence. At this age, it’s common for children to:

  • start to use past tense, for example, kicked, clapped
  • begin to mark possession, for example, girl’s hat, dog’s tail
  • use regular plurals, for example, cats, dogs, socks
  • miss out function words such as ‘the’ and ‘is’.

Activities that help develop their skills

Add to what the child says

In conversation, for example:

Child:  ‘Car!’
Adult:  ‘Yes, a blue car!’

It’s a good way to encourage a child to use longer sentences.

Look at pictures together

Share pictures with the child and consider what’s happening. For example, ‘oh! let’s have a look, I wonder what’s happening here, look!’ Pause to give the child an opportunity to describe the picture.

If they’re not ready you can describe the picture for them, for example, ‘the boy is riding a bike’.  Pause as they might want to repeat after you. It’s a good way to encourage the child to describe pictures without any pressure.

Games to play with the pictures

Create a series of pictures. Make a postbox out of a cereal box and ask the child to tell you what’s happening in the pictures and then post them.

Or hide pictures around the room and get your child to find them and then tell you what’s happening.

Or play fishing games using a magnet and attaching paper clips to pictures. Your child has to ‘fish’ for a picture and tell you what’s happening.

Look at books together

Use any age appropriate book that the child enjoys. Sit so that you can share facial expressions.

Make the book exciting by:

  • saying it with feeling – be animated and expressive
  • building up anticipation
  • changing the names to include your child/family/friends
  • changing the story to fit the circumstances of your child’s life.

There’s no need to read the text but try:

  • following the child’s lead and commenting on what interests them
  • expanding on what they say, for example, if they say ‘eat’, you could say ‘yes, the duck’s eating’
  • demonstrating examples of 2 word combinations, for example, ‘the tiger’s drinking’
  • leaving gaps for him to fill in the words, for example, ‘the monkey said…’
  • taking turns to talk about a picture
  • using repetition, for example, books where the story line’s repetitive.



What to expect

Children produce longer sentences by putting lots of words together. They may use joining words such as ‘and’ and ‘because.’

They may also:

  • use auxiliary verbs (is, was, has), for example, ‘the man is eating’
  • use determiners, for example, ‘the man is kicking the ball’
  • use past tense and third person singular for example, he drinks, she eats
  • overgeneralise irregular verb endings, for example, ‘throwed’ instead of ‘threw’.

Activities that help develop their skills

Give a commentary of what’s happening at home, nursery or school. Talk to children about what they’re doing during play or what other adults are doing. This will help the words make more sense and help the child to learn language.

For example:

“You’re giving teddy something to eat”

“Miss Clarke is reading the story today. She is sitting on the blue chair”

“Sarah is kicking the ball to Henry. They are playing football.”

“Grandma would like to read you a story today. She is sitting in the kitchen.”

“Sarah and Sam are breaking an egg. They are making a cake.”

Look at books with busy pictures

The ‘First 1,000 words’ books help children practice simple sentences.  Take turns to describe something that’s happening in the picture. The other person has to find it, for example, ‘The girl is jumping on the boy’s sandcastle.’

Action card activities

Download our Pip action pictures activity sheet  and Teddy action pictures activity sheet .

Ask the child what Pip and Teddy are doing in the pictures.


What to expect

Children begin using more grammatical information in their sentences. This includes:

  • ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘has’, ‘the’ and ‘a’, for example, ‘the man is eating’ instead of ‘man eating’
  • verb tenses, for example, ‘he drinks’, ‘she eats’. They may make mistakes such as  saying ‘throwed’ instead of ‘threw’and ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’
  • pronouns – his/hers, they/theirs, him/her, ours, himself/herself/yourself/ourselves
  • questions – why, where, what?

Activities that help develop their skills

What is it?

Use a selection of real objects in a bag or object pictures. Take turns taking an object or a picture out of the bag and describing it (without the other person seeing).

If you’re unsure what the object is, ask your child for information such as ‘where do you find it?’, ‘what do you use it for?’ This will develop your child’s describing and questioning skills.

Actions game

Use a hoop or a carpet square as an ‘actions’ space. Everyone playing sits around the hoop so they can all see the action. Take turns to stand in the hoop and do an action (sticking your tongue out, jumping up and down, waving your hand).

Sit back down in the circle, then ask one child ‘what did I do?’ ‘You jumped!’

Demonstrate the use of the past tense to talk about the action, for example, ‘Claire hopped on one leg’ instead of ‘Claire is hopping.’ The child will complete the action before you ask the question.

Paper dolls pronoun game

Print out a boy and girl doll, and their clothes.

Take turns to choose an item of clothing and put it on the dolls. Talk about what you have put on. Make sure you use the words ‘he’ and ‘she’, for example, ‘he is wearing a t-shirt’, ‘she is wearing brown shoes.’

Once the child uses the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ well, you can use this game to practice ‘his’ and ‘her’.  This time, have a pile of ‘girls clothes’ and a pile of ‘boys clothes’.  Have fun mixing up the girls and boys clothes and making sentences such as ‘she is wearing his t-shirt’, ‘he is wearing her hat.’

Shopping game

Collect a group of recognisable objects the child could buy from a shop. Lay them out for the child to see and begin the game by saying, “I went shopping and I bought… “ (pick up an item and name it).

Next the child takes a turn using the same phrase ‘I went shopping …’ but chooses a different object. The adult should demonstrate the phrase ‘I went shopping and I bought__ and ___’. Keep the objects visible as this is a game to develop sentence building and not memory.

Expand the shopping game at the end with the question, “what did you buy?’ Encourage the child to list the objects they chose within the game.

Look at books together

See the same activity for children aged 3 to 4 years.



What to expect

At this age, children can:

  • use well formed sentences with more details
  • use some irregular past tense, for example, ‘I drank all my milk’, “she took my teddy” but may still make some errors
  • start to use words such as ‘if’, ‘because’, ‘so’ and ‘could’
  • show that they can use language to reason and persuade, for example, ‘can I go outside because it’s stopped raining?’

Activities that help develop their skills

Guess who (in a classroom setting)

Each pupil has to describe another pupil in the group by using 2 descriptive elements, for example, ‘they have brown hair and they’re wearing a blue top.’  The pupil being described puts their hand up.  If they’re correct, they describe another pupil and the game continues.

I give you this gift (in a group or classroom setting)

Ask a group of children to sit in a circle. Ask each child to pass an object round the circle saying the phrase ‘I give you this gift because…’ The child then has to think of one thing about the object, for example, it’s red, it has wheels.

Nonsense pictures

Encourage the child to explain why the pictures are silly using words such as ‘if’ and ‘because’.


Each child has a board with the other pictures face down. Take it in turns to chose a picture and match to the board once they have attempted to describe the picture in a sentence, for example, ‘the boy is kicking the ball.’

If the child misses any of the main sentence components, for example, ‘boy’, ‘kicking’ or ‘ball,’ ask them to repeat the sentence with the missing bit added, for example,

“You said ‘kicking the ball’ Can you describe the picture again and tell me who is kicking the ball?”

If the child misses out any of the small grammatical words (‘is’, ‘the’), repeat the sentence back to the child and emphasize the missed words.

Sequencing pictures

Show the child a set of pictures that represent a sequence of events. Demonstrate how to re-tell a story using the pictures and ask the child to take a turn.

Use descriptive vocabulary and longer sentences with connective words such as ‘because’ and ‘however.’ Take turns to re-tell stories using the same set of pictures but with a different ending. Children may need to hear lots of examples with different endings before thinking of their own ideas.

Persevere as the child learns by hearing the language demonstrated to them.


What to expect

Children of this age will:

  • ask lots of questions to find out specific information including ‘how’ and ‘why’, for example, ‘how do we know burglars can’t get in?’
  • use an imaginative range of descriptive words in sentences, for example, ‘suddenly, he saw a huge hairy creature’
  • use more complicated grammar and ways to join phrases to explain or justify an event, for example, ‘It was scary because even the man with the dog looked worried, so we decided to get out of there.’

Activities that help develop their skills

Guess who

Take turns to describe a favourite person in the family, from a TV programme or book. Pick someone the child knows.

Describe that person’s hair and eye colour, likes and dislikes. Adapt the difficulty to the age of the child.

Adapt familiar stories

Create different endings and demonstrate this to the child.


Ask the child to give different excuses in situations. For example, you get a pink shirt for their birthday, which you can change, but you hate it. Demonstrate how to use language to not hurt anyone’s feelings or wear something you do not like.

In a group setting, ask each child to give a different, good excuse why you can not wear the shirt, and one way of using the shirt instead of wearing it.

Sequencing pictures

See the same activity for ages 5 to 7 years.



What to expect

At this age, children can:

  • use various regular and unusual word endings with few errors, for example, fought, fell, brought, geese, fish
  • use long and complex sentence structures and more complex joining words to make language flow, for example, ‘meanwhile’, ‘therefore’ or ‘yet’
  • use complex grammar and sentences to clarify, summarise, explain choices and plan
  • use language to reason and persuade
  • explain some rules of grammar and know when a sentence is not grammatically correct.

Sentences average about 7 to 10 words and sometimes longer in stories than in conversation.

Activities that help develop their skills

Re-telling stories

Encourage children to re-tell familiar stories, for example, common fairy tales, their school reading book, or even what happened in their favourite film).

Ask them to use interesting grammatical structures in their stories by giving them ‘buzz words’ and time connectives such as ‘as soon as’,  or ‘meanwhile.’ You could also prompt them for a particular part of speech, for example, adverbs.

Whenever they use a buzz word in their story, reward them with a point/token/house point (in a school setting).  Talk afterwards how using these buzz words made their story interesting.


Ask children to answer a series of questions, for example:

‘What if…’

  • people were born old and got younger
  • it rained sausages
  • all cars were yellow

‘How could you…’

  • travel to school tomorrow
  • make people laugh
  • use a comic (other than reading it)

‘How do you…’

  • brush your hair without a brush or comb
  • write a story without pencil or paper
  • make a cup of tea without a kettle
  • get dressed without using clothes

‘What could you do with…’

  • a trampoline that’s lost it’s bounce,
  • felt tip pens that don’t work
  • cereal that’s gone stale

They can then make up their own scenarios.

Jumbled sentences

jumbled sentences activity sheet

Give the children jumbled up sentences and ask them to re-organise the sentence. Print out sentences so they can cut up and separate words. Link sentences to illustrations to support children who struggle with this.

Separate parts of the sentence before separating individual words, for example:

  • the woman
  • in the garden
  • hanging out
  • the washing
  • was
  • on Saturday

Target sentences include:

  • ‘The woman was hanging out the washing in the garden on Saturday
  • ‘On Saturday the woman was in the garden hanging out the washing’
  • ‘The woman was in the garden hanging out the washing on Saturday.’

Explain that there is more than one correct answer.



What to expect

Children use a range of connective words in speech and writing. They average 7 to 11+ words in spoken sentences.

Activities that help develop their skills

Informal discussion on opinions and debates about topics of interest can show young people a range or complex sentence structures, for example,

‘If …. then’

‘…., however ….’

In a school setting

Clarify the role of the connective in a sentence including:

  • co-ordinates for example, ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’
  • sub-ordinates for example ‘because’, ‘when’, ‘if’, ‘unless’, ‘otherwise’, ‘meanwhile’, ‘until.’



What to expect

Teeneagers use a variety of connectives in speech and writing, for example, ‘even though’, ‘however’, ‘provided that’, ‘similarly.’ They average 7 to 13 words in spoken sentences.

Activities that help develop their skills

Engage teenagers in discussion at home by encouraging them to express the opinions of themselves or others.

Mind maps for planning work

This provides a written outline for teenagers to create their written or oral work at school. They can use key vocabulary to produce a topic and show the links and hierarchy of that topic.

Teenagers can then tick off when they use a branch or section of the mind map. Besides helping with organisation, the maps keep them focused.

Strategies and tips to support sentence building


Encouraging young children

Avoid correcting your child’s attempts at language negatively

Demonstrate the correct form. For example,  if your child says ‘I winned’, say ‘yes you won’ and emphasise the correct word.

Reduce background noise when talking

Create quiet times during the day when your child can hear your voice clearly.  Turn off the radio or TV.

Share picture books with your child

Take turns to talk about the pictures using short grammatical sentences.  Follow your child’s lead, talking about what they’re looking or pointing at.

Encouraging school-age children

Praise, reward and encourage communication

Even if speech is limited or unclear.

Offer specific praise

For example, ‘that was a really good sentence. You remembered to use the ‘is’ word.’ General comments like ‘clever boy/girl’ do not help your child to understand what they did well.

Give adequate time to respond

Try to avoid anticipating and/or completing your child will say. This limits their opportunity to express themselves and reduces their self-esteem.

Also, discourage others from interrupting whilst your child speaks.

Remove or reduce any stimulus

Cooling fans or music for example might distract your child and make it more difficult for them to process their expressive language.



Encouraging children in early years settings

Take turns in small groups to speak in simple sentences, for example, comment on what different children in the group are wearing or how they’re feeling.

Encouraging children in schools

Give children good models of language

For example, use complete concise sentences.

Expand the child’s utterance

If the child says ‘kicking the ball’, expand with ‘yes, the man is kicking the ball.’ Prompt when necessary to encourage them to expand, for example, ‘and then…’

Demonstrate the correct word or grammatical structure

If the child makes a mistake, respond and emphasise the correct word. For example, if the child says ‘the dentist looked at all my tooths’, respond with ‘he looked at all your teeth, did he?’

Give children time to respond

When you ask a question, give the child enough time to think of their response. All children benefit from time to plan, organise and respond.

Encourage expressive language skills

When playing games use role reversal techniques so that the child directs you.

Use open questions

This will encourage children to produce expanded sentences with appropriate grammar and vocabulary, instead of yes or no responses.