Higher order language

From 30 months onwards, many children begin to develop more complex language abilities, such as understanding how language works and figurative and humorous language.

Children learn the foundations of oral language, through social interaction and rich language experiences. This includes the content (words and concepts), structures (grammar), and use of the spoken word (conversations, stories, explanations).


Many language and emergent literacy learners (30 months onwards), also begin to develop abilities in more complex or higher order language, which includes:

  • inferencing (making an informed guess of the meaning of a statement, situation or text, based on clues that are not explicit)
  • metalinguistic awareness (being able to think about and describe the concepts of ‘letter’ ‘word’ ‘phrase’ etc.)
  • different styles of language (oral vs. written language style)
  • figurative language (language that is not literal, e.g. similes, metaphors and exaggerations: hyperbole)
  • language for humour.

See below for explanations of each of these.

The importance of higher order language

Children’s foundational language development is critical. In addition to this, facilitating deeper and more complex uses of language is also important, especially in older children. This includes an awareness of how language and communication work, how to make guesses about what something might mean (inferencing and figurative language), and starting to appreciate how language can be used to create poems, rhyme, or humour.

As children learn the basics of oral language, they can also be exposed to uses of language that are more complex. This means focussing less on the here and now, and more on the past, present, and imagined; as well as on figurative or humorous language.

Key developmental milestones

The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but does not limit the expectations for every child (see VEYLDF Practice Principle: High expectations for every child). It is always important to understand children’s development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

  • are engaged in language and emergent literacy experiences, focussed on the “here and now”
  • learn to understand literal meanings of words
  • play simple joking and turn taking games like peek-a-boo.

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

  • engage in language and emergent literacy experiences that focussed on the here and now, and increasingly on more abstract topics (e.g. storybooks, concept books)
  • start to fix errors in communication
  • start to change communication style according to context (audience, purpose)
  • start to play joking games like pretending to “take someone’s nose” and “throw it away.”

Language and Emergent Literacy Learners (30 - 60 months)

  • start to check if listeners have understood
  • start to adjust language to make sure a message makes sense
  • begin to show awareness of concepts of ‘words’, ‘sounds’, ‘sentences’
  • begin to test if a particular word “will work” in a spoken sentence
  • start to use language specific to different social roles (e.g. during pretend play as a parent vs. child vs. doctor etc.)
  • start to understand some examples of figurative (metaphorical) language (e.g. similes, hyperbole: see below)
  • start to use language for humour, by laughing at (or creating their own) silly sayings or jokes.

Adapted from Owens (2015).


The ability to make inferences (going beyond what is actually said and determining the implied meaning) is an important part of critical listening, as is the ability to evaluate information.
- Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 36)

Children’s inferencing skills start with simple or obvious inferences. For instance, once children have object permanence (around 8 months), they can infer that when an object falls off a table, and out of sight, that it will likely be on the floor. From their view at the table, the object is no longer visible. Children are making a basic inference by assuming that it must be on the floor, because they haven’t yet seen it for themselves.

An example of a linguistic inference is inferring how someone feels from how they are described: e.g. ‘The girl was crying all day. She had tears running down her face.’ Inference: She was sad.

Inferencing skills are important for children’s emergent reading comprehension. Inferencing involves children finding clues and hints within the text. It requires children to use their prior knowledge and the available information in the text to make an inference (guess) about what is being communicated.

Some question stems that educators use to facilitate children’s inferencing during conversations, or reading experiences include:

  • what do you think happened?
  • what do you think will happen next?
  • why did........?
  • why is........?
  • why do you think that.......?
  • can you explain........?
  • what caused........?
  • what do you think ........ means?
  • why is ........ important?


Metalanguage is the words and phrases we use to describe language. These are the linguistic terms we use to talk about “letters”, “words”, “phrases”, “sentences” and “stories” for example.

Metalinguistic awareness has been defined as “the ability to reflect consciously on the nature and properties of language” (van Kleeck, 1982, p. 237).

Key metalinguistic terms that educators use in discussions with children include:

  • sound
  • syllable
  • word
  • phrase
  • sentence
  • conversation
  • story
  • explanation.

Children develop metalinguistic awareness, and familiarity with metalinguistic terms such as these, through interactions and conversations with more knowledgeable adults or peers. During these interactions, adults use these words to talk about language.

Children’s understanding and use of metalinguistic terms is important for their growing awareness of how language works, and how it can be used for a variety of social (and later academic) purposes.

See the examples in the getting started section for ways of embedding metalinguistic terms into conversations with children.

Oral versus written styles of language

Language is used for many different purposes, and changes depending on the context of the audience and the reason for communicating. Here we will discuss the difference between:

  • an oral language style (contextualised language), which is used most in conversation or informal social situations, and
  • a written language style (decontextualised language), which is used in more formal settings, such as official communications, documents, academic purposes etc.

(Snow; 1991; McKeon, 1994; see the theory to practice section below for more on contextualised vs. decontextualised language).

Children initially develop their language skills within an oral language style as this is the style of language they hear the most: conversational language with adults and peers. An oral language style has certain features:

In spoken language, the meanings are often implicit and rely on context, such as the use of gestures: ‘It’s over there, no, there’ [pointing]… The stress or emphasis on particular words will affect the meaning. For example, saying these sentences out loud with an emphasis on different words, will lead to different meanings:

Where have you been?

Where have you been?

Where have you been?

Where have you been?

Hill (2014, p. 313)

Elements of nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice also contribute to the meaning. As a result, oral language styles have more pronouns and simple joining words (conjunctions: and, but, then). Oral language styles also might use more slang.

Children also engage in experiences that start to use a written language style, such as:

  • shared storybook or non-fiction book reading
  • in-depth discussions about certain topics
  • sustained shared thinking.

A written language style does not rely on gesture, eye gaze, intonation, and other contextual information to get a message across. As a result, a written language style:

  • is more abstract (less about the here and now)
  • uses a more extensive (and more specific) vocabulary
  • uses longer and more complex sentences (grammar)
  • leaves more opportunities for inferencing and predicting by the reader/listener
  • uses more figurative language (e.g. similes, metaphors: see further below).

Through various language and literacy experiences in early childhood and beyond, children learn about the more formal and descriptive language of written texts (written language style).

Examples of oral versus written language style

Here is an example of the differences between oral and written language styles, using a version of the story The Three Little Pigs.

The three little pigs - oral language style

Once, there were three little pigs. They all wanted to build a house each. One pig made it out of straw and had a sleep in it. Another pig made his out of wood. Then the last pig used bricks.

The three little pigs - written language style

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs who were each deciding how to build a house of their very own.

The first little pig, who was hasty and keen to start sleeping in his house, built it out of straw, which he found in a nearby field. Soon after he curled up in a corner and nodded off.

The second little pig preferred sturdier houses that could be assembled using the wood from his favourite kind of tree: the long birch that had just fallen over.

The third pig was the most cautious and patient, so he carefully gathered strong red bricks that he placed in straight, even rows, to slowly make his perfect house…

Notice how the language of the first example uses less advanced vocabulary, is less specific, and less detailed. In this example, the speakers’ tone of voice, body language, and facial expression may help to tell the story.

The opposite is true for the written language style, where the vocabulary and kinds of sentences are more complex, specific, and create clearer imagery.

See another example for a procedural text: a recipe.

Pancake recipe - oral language style

  1. mix the flour, sugar and egg in a bowl. Add the milk slowly a bit at a time.
  2. heat the pan, melt the butter, and add dollops of the mixture. Make small circles.
  3. when you see bubbles pop up on the pancake, it’s ready to flip over. Leave it for thirty seconds and it’ll be done.
  4. you can eat your pancakes with maple syrup or ice cream.

Pancake recipe - written language style

  1. lightly whisk the pre-sifted flour and sugar, in a large mixing bowl. As you are beating the egg, progressively introduce some dashes of milk, until your batter is smooth. Make sure you combine or remove any stray clumps of flour.
  2. pre-heat a pan (or flat grill) on medium-high, and spread the stick of butter evenly over the cooking surface. Measure out a 1/4 of a cup to make small discs of batter, ensuring there is adequate space between them.
  3. once large bubbles form on the surface, carefully flip the pancake over and cook until lightly golden on the opposite side (around thirty seconds depending on your cooking temperature).
  4. serve with your choice of maple syrup, the ice cream flavour of your choice, or for something different – lime and a sprinkle of sugar.

It is important to note, that children eventually learn to use a written language style in both written and oral language formats:

Oral language style (contextualised):

  • oral language use: conversation, informal discussion etc.
  • written language use: texting, informal emails, using social media with friends etc.

Written language style (decontextualised):

  • written language use: storybooks, non-fiction books, academic texts, forms, documents, contracts etc.
  • oral language use: formal discussion, giving a speech etc.

(See Snow; 1991; McKeon, 1994; Uccelli et al., 2018; Rowe, 2013; and further information in the theory to practice section.)

Literal versus figurative language

Another form of higher order language is literal versus figurative language:

  • literal language: is language that means exactly what is said - the surface meaning
  • figurative language: is where we use language to produce additional (or hidden) meanings - the deep meaning.

These descriptions demonstrate some differences between literal and figurative:

  • the sand feels rough (literal); the sand is as rough as bark (figurative).
  • she looks tired (literal); she looks like she’s been awake forever (figurative).
  • let’s get going! (literal); pull your socks up! (figurative)

Children learn how to use language figuratively alongside their literal use of language, but tend to develop their understanding and use of figurative language later (typically from the ages of four years onwards).

Experiences that develop figurative language are useful because adults tend to use figurative language often in conversations with children (e.g. are you pulling my leg?).

In addition, using figurative language allows us to explore the beauty and power of language to describe the world in imaginative and poetic ways. Below are some examples of figurative language that children in early childhood settings might begin to understand and use.

Examples of figurative language

Here are some key examples of figurative language that educators can highlight and use to develop the higher order language skills of language and emergent literacy learners:

  • Simile

    • language that describes how one concept is similar to another
    • e.g. the rock was light as a feather
    • e.g. she jumped up and down like a puppy.
  • Metaphor

    • language that says how one concept can stand in for another
    • e.g. you’re all busy bees today!
    • e.g. the snow was a white blanket covering the ground.
    • e.g. she had a heart of gold.
  • Imagery

    • language that appeals to our senses
    • e.g. it was dark and hazy in the forest(creates a picture of the forest)
    • e.g. the galloping horses tumbled into the village (creates a sense of the sound and action of the scene
  • Onomatopoeia

    • language that sounds like the thing it is describing
    • e.g. buzz, ding, whoosh, drip, click, grumble
  • Idiom

    • phrases that have a hidden (figurative) meaning, which may not be obvious.
    • e.g. that’s a piece of cake. (easy)
    • e.g. it must have slipped my mind. (I forgot)
    • e.g. that is a rip off! (expensive)
    • e.g. it just came out of the blue.(out of nowhere)
  • Hyperbole

    • language that exaggerates an idea so that it is impossible or silly. Hyperbole is often used for emphasis and humour.
    • e.g. I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
    • e.g. this car goes faster than the speed of light.
    • e.g. they’ve got tons of books in there!


Children’s humour develops from very early experiences like engaging in eye contact, and smiling. Other communicative games like peek-a-boo are funny to babies because of their lack of a sense of object permanence: This means children are still developing their understanding that objects and people continue to exist, even when out of sight. This is why babies are astonished that people can seemingly disappear during these games!

By 12-18 months, children will start to repeat actions that get people laughing, but these will mainly be object-based, such as the pretending to take off a child’s nose. Imagination is also a key part of this developing sense of humour (Hoicka & Akhtar, 2012).

However, humour also becomes based on children’s understanding and use of oral language, particularly the ability to notice ideas or comments that are silly or absurd.

Almost all types of humour involve a realisation of incongruity between a concept and a situation. In other words, we laugh when things surprise us because they seem out of place.”

- Davis (2017)

One example of this is absurd (or paradoxical) language, which includes statements that seem odd (silly, funny, or ridiculous) because they combine two ideas which appear illogical. This can be seen in Peter Combe’s Song: Wash Your Face in Orange Juice (Mr Clicketty Cane) where many absurdities/paradoxes are described, including ‘mend the fence with sticky tape’, and ‘belly-flop on a pizza’.

Exaggeration using hyperbole (discussed above), can also provide great opportunities for humour. For example, authors frequently use hyperbole in children’s literature, like the sentence: “You are walking slower than a snail!” or “His stomach is a bottomless pit.” These examples can be very funny for children, especially when partnered with entertaining illustrations.

Talking with children about why books, phrases, actions are funny can provide great opportunities for higher order language development. This supports children to think about language in a more complex way, and will pave the way to children’s interest in riddles, and jokes later on.

Theory to practice

Early language users (12-36 months of age) tend to use language to talk about the “here and now”, which means people, objects and events in the current environment (Uccelli et al., 2018). As per the VEYLDF (2016), children use a combination of gestures, eye gaze, as well as language, to express themselves.

However, from around 2 years onwards, children begin to be exposed to more “written language style” conversations (or decontextualised language). This is achieved through interactions about stories, explanations, discussions, and conversations about past, future, and imagined situations.

Contextualised language (oral language style) has the following characteristics:

  • oral language styles are used in typical everyday conversations.
  • resources like shared knowledge, gestures, intonation, facial expressions, and listener feedback help to facilitate shared understanding and communication
  • this style of language relies on contextual/background information to make sense.

Decontextualised language (written language style):

  • this style is used in formal narratives, definitions, and formal explanations (can be spoken or written)
  • shared background knowledge or context does not matter very much to make meaning from the language used
  • the style uses linguistic devices, like complex grammatical structures (e.g. even though, whenever) and explicit vocabulary to communicate messages
  • the written language style mirrors the language used in written form.

In addition to providing children with a large quantity of input that is diverse in vocabulary and syntactically complex, it is important to make sure that children have the opportunity to engage in conversations around decontextualized language during the preschool years to pave the way for their academic success.
- Rowe (2013, p. 265)

According to Jones (1996), a balance between contextualised and decontextualized language should always be in play when educators are interacting with children and supporting their understanding of different styles and uses of language.

Uccelli et al. (2018) describe the importance of written language style for higher order language development:

In these decontextualized conversations, language needs to be used as its own context. In other words, because, … the people, objects, concepts, or events discussed are not present in the immediate physical surrounding, speakers cannot rely on pointing or other nonverbal cues to convey meaning. Instead, language needs to rely more on itself and much less on the physical context. As a result, these conversations provide supportive interactional contexts in which children learn to communicate with increasing levels of linguistic precision.
- Uccelli et al. (2018, p. 3)

Early theories of written language styles hypothesised that the development of only decontextualised language was important for reading comprehension skills, and not children’s contextualised language (oral language style) (Snow, 1991; McKeon, 1994). Recent evidence (explored further below) supports this hypothesis.

Theoretical work from Pramling and Samuelsson (2007) also supports the exploration of figurative language, like metaphor, in early childhood settings.

Vygotsky (1978) argued that social interactions that required decontextualised language, as well as humour, were beneficial for children’s cognitive development. The theoretical viewpoints reviewed create a strong argument to support children’s development of higher order language.

Evidence base

Research shows the importance of inferencing (e.g. Chen&Liang, 2017; Collins, 2016) and decontextualised language (Rowe, 2013, Uccelli et al., 2018) for the development of later language and literacy skills.

In a study of children’s literacy development, Rowe (2013) found that three- and four-year-old children’s vocabulary was significantly developed when their parents provided more explanations and narrative discussions about past or future events.

The link between children’s decontextualised language in preschool and their language and literacy capabilities, demonstrates the importance of a higher order language focus, for language and emergent literacy learners.

Children’s development of higher order language is linked with the home learning environment and socio-economic status (SES) (Curenton, Craig, & Flanigan, 2008). This means it is important that educators create multiple opportunities for all children to hear and learn to use aspects of higher order language, including inferencing, written language style, figurative language, and humour.

The importance of inferencing, particularly, for developing children’s emergent reading comprehension has also been supported by empirical research (see Collins, 2016).

There is less evidence available about the benefits of figurative language and humour in early childhood settings, but further research will help address this gap.

Outcome 5: communication

Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes

  • interact with others to explore ideas and concepts, clarify and challenge thinking, negotiate and share new understandings
  • convey and construct messages with purpose and confidence, building on literacies of home and/or family and the broader community
  • exchange ideas, feelings and understandings using language and representations in play
  • show increasing knowledge, understanding and skill in conveying meaning.

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts

  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways.

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media

  • share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work

  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them
  • begin to sort, categorise, order and compare collections and events and attributes of objects and materials in their social and natural worlds.

Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking

  • engage with technology for fun and to make meaning.

Getting started


Here are some examples of ways that educators can use metalinguistic terms in the context of conversations and discussions:

  • talk about the sounds in words, for example you can use alliterative words (e.g. ball, big, bicycle, bean) to talk about the initial sound of those words: “can you hear that all these words have the same sound at the start?
  • highlight phonological awareness skills like syllable and rhyme awareness, to talk about counting “syllables” in words, and identifying “rhymes”
  • notice what words children use, and when they say a new word, comment on it: “I like that word you used! That word means …”
  • when explaining what a phrase means, use the word “phrase”: “‘Filled to the brim’ is a funny phrase isn’t it? The phrase means your tummy is so full you can’t eat any more!”

Written language styles

In a study exploring the importance of developing an awareness of written language style (decontextualised language), Rowe (2013, p. 265) provides the following recommended strategies, which are most relevant for language and emergent literacy learners:

  • engage in sociodramatic play with children, and use language to talk about past, future, imaginary worlds (this requires more complex, and decontextualised language).
  • make sure to answer children’s why questions fully, it’s important to provide clear answers and working to relate these concepts to their prior learning.
  • start conversations about things you and the children have done together in the past: e.g. “Remember when we went to the zoo yesterday?” or “Remember this morning when we played with the puzzles?” and prompt children to describe what they remember, their favourite parts, and if they’d like to do it again.
  • start talking about future events and ask children to predict what might happen: e.g. “You’re going on holidays next week! What do you think it will be like? What do you think you will be able to do there?”

See the teaching practice: discussions and investigations for further information about using open-ended questions to prompt discussion.

Figurative language

Similes and metaphors:

  • when similes or metaphors come up in texts or conversations, try to point these out to children, and help them to figure out what they mean

    • e.g. I wonder what ‘it was as tall as a building’ means?
  • Anthony Browne’s picture books including: My Dad, My Mum, and My Brother are full of similes, and are a great starting pointing to introduce similes to children


  • Peggy Parrish’s Amelia Bedelia books feature a lot of great idioms, and are very amusing. The main character gets herself into trouble by taking these idioms literally, for example:

    • “what would you do if you were in the major’s shoes” (idiom)
    • “I would polish them … they need a good shine!” (literal interpretation)
  • books like these can be a great starting point to think about figurative language, including idioms like: “he was seeing red”, and “It's raining cats and dogs”
  • when children are confused by idioms (because they do not make a lot of sense literally), educators can use these situations as learning opportunities:

    • e.g. Could it really be “raining cats and dogs”? No… That’s impossible! So, I think that must be a funny way of saying something else. I wonder what it could mean… [pause].

Imagery, Onomatopoeia, Hyperbole:

  • Look at children’s literature or poetry to find examples of early uses of these language devices.
  • Facilitate children’s creation of basic poems (e.g. Haiku, rhyming couplets) to encourage children to express their ideas using their five senses (see exploring and creating texts for examples).

Experience plans and videos:

For age groups: language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months).


Hill, S. (2014) Developing early literacy: Assessment and teaching. (2nd Edition). South Yarra, Victoria, Australia: Eleanor Curtin Publishing.

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Davis, P. (2017) How children develop a sense of humour. In The Conversation. Accessed 4 March 2018

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Uccelli, P., Demir-Lira, Ö. E., Rowe, M. L., Levine, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2018). Children’s early decontextualized talk predicts academic language proficiency in mid adolescence. Child Development, Early Online, 1–14.

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Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016), Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF), Retrieved 3 March 2018.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.