As a pediatrician and a parent of trilingual kids, I am often asked how to teach kids grammar and other language skills.
Parents want to know which apps, workbooks, and textbooks are best suited for their child. Unfortunately, successful marketing of these “academic” options have distracted people from the basics of language acquisition.
The best way to teach kids grammar – or any aspect of language – is to provide a natural context for its use, whether it is a native or second language for your child.
Most commonly, this can be achieved by normal conversation with a fluent speaker. In addition, quality children’s literature enhances communication skills.
What is grammar?
Grammar is the structural foundation of all languages. Each language has its own system of word order and usage. Subject/verb/object rules may vary across languages. Some languages have words with tenses (past versus present), while others have masculine and feminine pronouns.
The best way to teach kids grammar
Although grammar is essential for effective communication, intensive study is not required, especially for toddlers and young children.
Just as kids learn to eat with utensils or ride a bike, they do not need an instruction manual to acquire language skills. In fact, consciously dissecting each step would likely be counterproductive to the process and joy of mastering the skill.
The natural way to learn grammar
Proper grammar is learned intuitively and subconsciously through conversations with native language speakers who can model its correct use.
Since kids love to play, regular and imaginative play are prime opportunities for rich language exchange. These organic experiences are also the best way to encourage kids to speak the minority language.
Teach kids grammar anywhere
“Grammar lessons” can occur at the beach, playground, and right at home throughout the course of the day. For example, if my 2-year-old son points to the ocean and says “大海 (dà hǎi / ocean)”, I would model grammar and word usage by replying in a full sentence and then inviting him to repeat what I said.
Kids will figure out grammar
As adults, when we hear non-native speakers make grammatical errors in our native language, the mistakes often stand out. This is because our ears are accustomed to distinct grammatical patterns through everyday conversations.
Over time, kids will also figure out what sounds “right” and “wrong” through regular communication with fluent speakers.
Learn grammar through stories
Regular reading of various story books is critical for expanding vocabulary and exposing children to sentence structures that might not be used in daily conversation.
For our family, access to quality Korean and Chinese children’s books is particularly important since we live in a monolingual community with few speakers of our minority languages.
Mulilingual audiobooks are also useful for passive native language exposure. Although reading is extremely important, you still have to listen to and speak the language as much as possible to achieve fluency.
Are grammar guides useful?
Formal study can definitely help older children and adults understand grammatical patterns.
As an adult learner of Mandarin Chinese, I need to take peak at learning guides because I don’t have enough exposure to a native Chinese speakers. I sometimes confuse Chinese grammar with that of my native language, English.
Two helpful and digestible resources for Chinese grammar include:
- How to Learn Chinese Grammar: 5 Tips for Excelling at Mandarin
- @BreezyChinese Chinese Teaching on Instagram
However, the priority is to practice speaking Chinese (even if its imperfect), listen to audiobooks, and read quality Chinese literature. Hearing grammar in real life context from an early age will help kids use it naturally and correctly over time.
Recommended articles about teaching kids grammar
- Tackling Chinese Grammar (Sagebooks HK Blog)
- Grammar Matters and Should Be Taught Differently (The Conversation)
- How To Teach Grammar Without Crushing Love Of The Written Word (Steam Powered Family)
- The Modern Method to Learning Grammar in a Foreign Language (FluentU)
- 15 Smart Children’s Books to Improve Your English Grammar (FluentU)
- Why You Shouldn’t Study Grammar Rules and What to Do Instead (French Together)
- Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar (Hacking Chinese)
Articles about how to raise multilingual children
For more advice on raising multilingual children, please read the following posts:
- Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 10 Ways to Get Your Child to Read Throughout the Day