Research shows children are better at grammar before they learn to read
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Research shows children are better at grammar before they learn to read

Research shows children are better at grammar before they learn to read

by Freya Lucas

December 04, 2018

The best time to learn a second language is before you can read in any language, research published in the Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science has found.


In the same week the 2019 Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) funding was announced, the researchers published the Literate and preliterate children show different learning patterns in an artificial language learning task research paper, showing that children who cannot read yet often treat multi-word phrases (such as “how are you?”) as whole words. After children learn to read, individual words are noticed more, and they lose their grammatical advantage.

Where adults struggle with learning grammatical relations, such as the agreement between nouns and their gendered articles, young children are much better at learning arbitrary relations between words.This is an important skill in many languages other than English, which use gendered articles – for example is the Spanish word for problem ‘la problema’ or ‘el problema’?


Until now, scientists have believed that children’s superior grammar skills are related to their age and brain flexibility, however new research has shown that children’s advantage in grammar learning may also be because of their inability to read.


The research is based on Inbal Arnon’s “Starting Big” hypothesis, which states that younger children are better learners because they focus more on multi-word units, and less on individual words. The researchers predicted that children should excel at learning certain grammatical relations between words before they become literate. After learning how to read, they should pay more attention to single words, which hinders learning relations between words.


After conducting research with an invented language, researchers found that acquiring literacy skills (learning to read) meant that children did lose their grammatical edge. The findings, researchers said, have implications for second language teaching, showing that children may learn a second language best if they learn it before they learn to read, in any language.


The study is available to read in full here

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