Teaching Young Children Pronouns


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! 🙂

With Love,

Hallie Bulkin

13 thoughts on “Teaching Young Children Pronouns

  1. Hallie another awesome lesson. Putting ten of these together would make a great sign up gift for your readers. – T

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful and in-depth explanation. I need to work on teaching more to my 4 year old, but have found he catches on to things through other means as well. I will keep this in mind when trying to explain though! Thanks!

  3. Does this same concept work in kids that don’t have a speech issue? I want to help my son learn as much as I can and start from an early age. 🙂

  4. Sure do! THey are just strategies to teach the concepts. Just remember that you don’t want to teach things earlier than your child is ready for!

  5. Thank you so much for this! My 3-year-old is proficient with I/you/me/my/your/we/us, etc. and uses them regularly and correctly, but tends to either avoid using gender-specific pronouns (“What is that boy doing?” instead of “What is he doing?”) or he just uses “it” or “that” instead. I realize that my husband and I make the mistake of talking in the third person a lot (“Mommy is taking Cate to the doctor” instead of “I am taking her to the doctor,” for example, came out of my mouth today) so we’re really trying to put the brakes on that. I stumbled across your site and these ideas are so helpful. He was evaluated by a speech pathologist at his preschool and she wasn’t terribly concerned as his speech is otherwise normal but she did encourage us to work with him on it and report back if we didn’t see success over a matter of a couple of months. We will certainly use these tips at home to help him along!

  6. Here’s a guide for when you’ll know they are ready 🙂

    Approximate Age in Months Pronouns
    12-26 I, it (subjective and objective
    27-30 My, me, mine, you
    31-34 Your, she, he, yours, we
    35-40 They, us, hers, his, them, her
    41-46 Its, our, him, myself, yourself, ours, their, theirs
    47+ Herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves

  7. I am so glad to have you join us here! If you would like to get our posts to your inbox be sure to subscribe! It sounds like your son is on the right track and you have the right idea of what to do to help him learn the difference between the gender-specific pronouns. Modeling for your son is a great strategy to teach him the difference between the gender-specific pronouns. 🙂

  8. Hello, do you have any scholarly articles in regards to this information you provided. I think this is great and would love to see some research.

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