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How Students Acquire Grammar

Writing about the acquisition of language skills in young children, Lucy McCormick Calkins states,

“Children learn the power of language because they are surrounded by people who use language for real world reasons and expect children to do the same. And they do. Children have nearly invariable success in learning the complex and subtle skills of talking.”
The Art of Teaching Writing  

A story to illustrate the point:

Three-year-old Julia sat on her mother’s lap and listened to her mom, Jill, talk with friends about an upcoming father-daughter campout. 

Pointing to her mom, Julia eagerly contributed, “Her not going camping; her not a daughter.”  The mothers smiled, holding back giggles at Julia’s grammatical error.

“That’s right Julia,” offered one of the mothers gently. “She is not going camping; she’s not a daughter.”

Julia would have smiled broadly - clearly happy to have contributed this amazing fact about her mother to the table of adults. 

Unknowingly, Julia’s mind will register the difference between her original sentence and the one repeated by the adult. After multiple such errors, and hearing thousands more sentences from the world around her, Julia will adjust her understanding of pronoun use. Within a couple years, Julia will have sorted out when to use second person verses third person pronouns entirely on her own. 

“By the age four most children are speaking in clear, grammatically correct sentences. They are able to express complex ideas and desires quite easily. It is important to note that this learning occurs without direct instruction. Language evolves because the child has a need and a desire to communicate and the innate ability to do so.”

“How Language Is Learned: From Birth Through the Elementary years and Beyond”
Jane Kiel
Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar in Context

Children are not formally taught the set of rules or patterns that underlies our use of words, phrases, and sentences prior to trying to talk. 

Children simply start talking.

Julia’s preschool understanding of grammar is based entirely on her acquiring a descriptive grammar.  She has learned to put words together into phrases and sentences, which in turn allow her to communicate with those around her.