Child Language Acquisition - Theorists

Noam Chomsky

 Language Acquisition Device

  • The capacity to acquire language is innate within humans
  • The human brain is pre-programmed to acquire grammatical structures
  • Human languages share many similarities, which he calls Universal Grammar

Nativist Theory

  • Humans have an inbuilt capability to acquire language ( FOR: children often experience the same stages of development at similar paces and often make their own rules for language or overgeneralise - AGAINST:children need alot of imput to use language 'correctly' and
  • children who have been deprived of social contact often cannot achieve communicative 
  • competence)


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Berko and Brown - 'fis' test

-In the 1960's

-Found that a child who referred to a fish as a 'fis',substituting the 's' sound for 'sh', couldn't link the adult's use of 'fis' with the same animal

CHILD: A fis.

ADULT: Is this your fis?

CHILD: No. A Fis

ADULT: Is this your fish?

CHILD: Yes, my fis.

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Katherine Nelson - First Words

-In 1973

-Categorised children's first words into four groups

  • Naming (things or people) - eg. 'Daddy'
  • Actions/Events - eg. 'cuddle'
  • Describing/Modifying things - eg. 'more'
  • Personal/social words - eg. 'bye-bye'

-She found that 60% of first words are nouns (and therefore in the 'naming' group)

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Eve Clark

  • Studied first words
  • Found that children overextend the physical qualities of others and features such as shape,sound,taste,movement,size,textures

Leslie Rescorla 

  • divided overextension into three categories

Catergorical Overextension - the name of one member of a category is extended to all members of the category - eg. all round fruits called an 'apple'

Analogical Overextension - a word for one object is used for one in a different category - eg. 'ball' used for all round fruit

Mismatch Statements - one-word sentences which appear quite abstract / a child makes a statement about one object in relation to another (eg. saying 'duck' when looking at an empty pond)

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Jean Aitchison

  • created these stages for liguistic development

Labelling - linking words to objects

 Packaging - exploring the labels and to what they can apply (over/underetension happens at this stage)

Network-building - making connections between words and understanding similarities and opposites in meanings

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Piaget - Cognitive Theory

  • language acquisition is part of a wider development of understanding
  • he argued that children will only acquire more complex forms when their intellectual development can cope so trying to teach things before they are ready will be unsuccesful
  • he advocated 'Discovery Learning' (learning by doing)
  • FOR: children don't seem to grasp language until they are ready
  • AGAINST:'fis' phenomenon suggests children's cognitive understanding can be present but their physical development may still impact their ability to use language and children can acquire without having an understanding of it
  • Cognitive = mental processes
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Berko - Wugs

  • provided evidence for the belief that children overgeneralise
  • "this is a wug. Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two____."
  • Three-quarters of 4-5 year olds surveyed formed the regular plural 'Wugs'.
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Michael Halliday - Functions of Speech

  • Instrumental - to fufil a need (eg. want juice)
  • Regulatory - to influence the behaviour of others (eg. pick up)
  • Interactional - to build social relationships (eg. Love you)
  • Personal - conveying opinions, ideas and personal identity (eg. Me like Charlie and Lola)
  • Representational - facts and information (eg. it cold)
  • Imaginative - creating an imaginary world (eg. me mum you dad)
  • Heuristic - to learn about their environment (eg. what's that?)
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John Dore - Language Functions

  • Labelling - naming
  • Repeating - repeating an adult's word/utterance
  • Answering - responding to another speaker's utterance
  • Requesting Action - asking or something to be done for them
  • Calling - getting attention
  • Greeting - greeting someone or something
  • Protesting - objecting to a request from others
  • Practising - not speaking directly to someone / speaking to yourself
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Jerome Bruner

Language Acquisition Support System (LASS)

  • the child's interaction with the adults around them
  • rituals and games like the alphabet song or 'Peek-a-Boo' are educational
  • Belived there were four phases of parent-child interactions with books                 - 1.Gaining attention (eg.getting the baby's attention on a picture                          - 2. Querying (eg. asking the baby what the picture is of)                                     -3. Label (eg. telling the baby what the picture is of)                                               -4. Feedback (eg. repsonding to the baby's utterences)


  • observed that adults gradually withdraw support as their childrens' skills develop

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Child Directed Speeh

  • repetition
  • higher pitch
  • present tense
  • fewer verbs/modifiers
  • concrete nouns
  • yes/no questioning
  • one-word utterences
  • expansions or recasts
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Ursula Bellugi

  • created three stages of negative formation

1.) uses 'no' or 'not' at the beginning or end of a sentence (eg. 'No wear shoes')

2.) moves 'no' / 'not' inside the sentence (eg. 'I no want it')

3.) attaches the negative to auxiliary verbs and the copula verb 'be' securely (eg. 'No, I don't want to go to nursery' or 'I am not') 

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Play and Language Acquisition


  • argues that children often use props as 'pivots' to support their play
  • observed that children role-play adult behaviours as part of exploring their environment


  • studied pairs of children
  • observed that children adopt roles and identities, act out storylines and invent objects and settings as part of role-play
  • this practices their social interactions and helps them to develop field-specific lexis (eg. school or hospital) 

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Skinner - Behaviourist Theory

  • Language is acquired through imitation and reinforcement
  • FOR: children do imitate accent and dialect, learn politeness strategies and repeat what they hear around them
  • AGAINST: children don't only imitate they can produce sentences they have never heard before, hear ungrammatical language around them but can still learn correct language, do not seem to repsond to correction and can imitate but not necessarily understand meanings 
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Bruner or Vygotsky- Social Interactionist Theory

  • Child language is developed through interaction with adults
  • FOR: routines and rituals seem to teach children about spoken discourse structure and turn-takings, children do learn politeness and sociably acceptable behaviour and role-play suggests that mroe interaction with carers can affect vocabulary
  • AGAINST: chidlren from cultures that do not promote a lot of adult-child interaction can still be articulate and fluent users of language
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Rothery - Categories for children's writing

  • Observation/Comment (eg. I saw a Tiger. It was very large)
  • Recount - usually chronological and written subjectively and follows this set pattern: Orientation -Event - Reorientation
  • Report - factual and objective description of things and not chronological 
  • Narrative - structurally complect and follows this set pattern: Orientation - Complication - Resolution - Coda
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Britton - categories of children's writing

  • Expressive - first mode to develop, resembles speech, written in first person
  • Poetic - develops gradually, requires skills in crafting and shaping language, phonological features such as rhyme and alliteration and descriptive features such as adjectives are common
  • Transactional - last mode to develop (around secondary school age), more academic style, more impersonal and detached tone, formal sentence structures and graphological features (eg. paragraphing)
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Spelling stages

  • Prephonemic - scribilling using pretend writing
  • Semi-phonetic - Link letter shapes and sounds
  • Phonetic - understanding that all phonemes are represented by graphemes and words become more complete
  • Transitional - awareness of more spelling rules and combinations of letters and letter patterns
  • Conventional - Spell most words correctly
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Types of Spelling Errors

  • Insertion - adding letters
  • Omission - leaving letters out
  • Substitution- substituting a letter for another
  • Transposition - reversing the correct word order
  • Phonetic Spelling - using sound to guess letters
  • Over/undergeneralising spelling rules - applying or not applying rules when not appropriate
  • Salient (Key) sounds - writing only the main/key sounds
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Paul Dutton


A very handy look at the main theorists studied. A brief description of the important points are bullet pointed for ease of use. 



Got pretty much every theorist that needs to be covered but it may be helpful to add in Sinclair & Coulthard - initiation, response, feedback :)



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