Teaching Young Children Pronouns
By Hallie Bulkin
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) explains that a pronoun REFERS to a noun or TAKES THE PLACE OF that noun.
Well that would be a bit of tricky way to explain pronouns to a 3-year-old, huh? So instead, we just pick the pronouns we want to teach first and get to work. We usually start with he/she and I/you. I have taught this concept to many children but it doesn’t always stick…or sometimes it “sticks” too much.
How To Teach Pronouns In Young Children
What do I mean by that? Well…let’s first look at HOW we teach pronouns in this young population. Make sure you have a definitive he and she to refer to so the child starts to understand the difference between the referents. You can use a book with characters, toys with faces that appear to be male or female, and/or family members to teach the difference between the referents.
Generally, when I teach he and she I start with a pronoun book that I made that allows me to see how well the child knows (or doesn’t know) their pronouns. We use that book as our baseline and to review the pronoun concept at the start of our sessions. For our purposes, we will pretend like the child doesn’t know their pronouns.
I make sure to have toys that lend themselves to he/she and I start by modeling phrases in play for the child to hear. For example, I might say, “the BOY is driving” (notice BOY is emphasized here as I overemphasize it when I produce it while teaching the concept as I want to draw the child’s attention to it) as I have him in the toy car driving away. Note: during this initial phase we are simply modeling and not expecting the child to repeat anything back. In this example, I might even say, “the BOY is driving. HE is a BOY” so that the child starts to understand the connection between BOY and HE.
Next, we want the child to be able to point to identify that they know and understand he/she. So I might say, “show me, HE is running” and wait to see if the child points to the correct picture when given 4 pictures to choose from. If the child is not successful with 4 pictures to choose from you can narrow the choices to 2 or 3 and see if that helps.
The next step is to have your child repeat back the models you produce. You want to make sure that he is a boy and she is for a girl. Start making associations to them that make sense. You might say, for example, mommy is a girl, sister is a girl and girls are “SHE”, etc. Do this for both he and she. You can repeat this same process with other pronouns (e.g., I, YOU).
Ultimately, we want your child to have enough practice through repetition that they start to correctly and spontaneously use the pronouns in their every day language schemas.
How To Eliminate Overgeneralization
Overgeneralization occurs when the child applies the same label to everyone or starts referring to all women as “She’s” instead of “her” “girl” “mommy” “grandma”, etc. That said, the child may overgeneralize by extending the referent to themselves that is not necessarily appropriate. let’s look at a real example from a former client and his mommy…
Do you know what happens when you have a child who hears himself referred to as “you” during therapy and the parent/therapist refer to themselves as “I/me”? Well, if you guessed it, sometimes kids will do this and refer to themselves as “you” instead of “me” and “I” because they are overgeneralizing the concepts to either themselves or their communication partner(s)! After all, it is what they are taught and that’s the model that they have for themselves. This happens…and you can fix it!
So how do you fix it? First of all, model model model! Modeling is the BEST way to get your child to learn a new skill and get them back on track if they are doing something out of the ordinary. If they are overgeneralizing and referring to themselves as “you” (instead of “I” and “me”) then you may want to try the following:
- Find a book with girls and boys in it and start talking about “he” and “she” in the book.
- Gather toys with faces that can be identified as a girl or a boy.
- Model for your child what you want them to say (this may seem backwards). If they are calling themselves “you” start following that up by taking their hand to their chest and saying “me” or “I” based on what is appropriate for the scenario. If you do it enough, it should catch on!
- You can take family photo’s and talk about everyone in them. For example, take a picture of your child and ask them, “who is that (in the picture)?” Model for them how to say “ME” or “grandpa is a boy, boy’s are HE”, etc.
- If you go somewhere and you ask your child if they want something to eat and they refer to themselves as “you,” model how you want them to say “I want _____.” It may seem backwards to you at times, but be sure that what you do makes sense to your child(ren).
- Grab a mirror. Mirror work is always fun. You can ask your child who they see in the mirror and practice saying, “me” until they seem to get confident that they are “me” in some situations. Mirror work is best to attempt for 5-10 minutes a day until your child understands the difference between the pronouns you are working on.
- Practice turn-taking. In order to do this, your child has to work on “my turn”(“mine” or “me”) and “your turn” (or “you”). This is another great way to teach an important skill (turn-taking) while also working on pronouns!
I would love to hear if anyone else has any other fun games or suggestions. Be sure to leave us your thoughts below in the comments! 🙂