It’s perfectly normal for young children to struggle with words like “she” and “her” – they can be used to refer to all sorts of different people and the correct pronoun to use depends on where it comes in the sentence as well. For example, we say “she is giving a present to her” not “her is giving a present to she”. There are a lot of different pronouns, but for today I’m just going to focus on he and she, as these are some of the most common ones for children to be confused about.
There are two common types of errors with these. Some children will over-use one pronoun (using either “he” or “she” to refer to both genders). Others will mark the difference between he and she, but will use object pronouns instead ie they will say “him is walking” or “her went shopping”. If your child is struggling with he and she, here are some steps that you can try.
As with any word, always make sure that the child understands it before you expect them to use it. Find lots of pictures of people doing things – you don’t have to buy any particular resources for this, just use family photos or find some pictures of people on the internet. Photos are best to start with, though you can try drawings later on. Look at each picture and see if the child can say whether it is a boy or a girl or more than one person. See if they can sort the pictures into “he”, “she” and “they” – make a pile of each together. Other things to try at this stage:-
- You can also talk about real people they know or favourite characters such as Ben and Holly or Charlie and Lola and ask the child to identify whether each one is a boy or a girl.
- Talk about the child’s friends and family members and ask if each one is a boy or girl.
Once you are sure that your child understands the difference between he and she, see if they can use the correct words in simple sentences. It can be difficult to keep this type of practise interesting as it’s very repetitive, and most children do need to practise for quite a while before they use the words spontaneously. Here are a few ideas of what you can do:-
- Emphasize the words “he” and “she” slightly when you are talking.
- Ask your child to go and find out what people around the house are doing and put it into a sentence. Your child will probably say “reading” or “daddy’s reading” to start with. Try giving them choices and see if they can choose the right sentence. EG “that’s right. So do we say he is reading or she is reading?”
- Look at books, photos and pictures with your child and see if they can talk about the pictures using “he” and “she”.
- Use two toys which are obviously gendered – I have a Potato Head bucket that works really well for this – it has mummy, daddy and baby Potato Heads in. First of all, we do it as a comprehension exercize – I say “he needs a nose” and see if the child can put it on the right one. Then I get them to give the instructions for me to follow instead. You could also do a similar thing with a picture of a boy and a girl and drawing things on them – eg “he needs glasses” or “she wants a hat”.
When your child is able to use the words in structured activities, see if they can use them in everyday speech. This stage always takes time, and it’s important that you don’t over-do it – focus on it for 5 or 10 minutes a day, but the rest of the time let your child speak freely! Here are some ideas:-
- See if your child can use the pictures to retell a favourite story. Talk about the characters with them before they start and identify whether each one is a “he” or a “she”. See if they can use the words when telling the story. If they forget, occasionally stop them and query what they said (eg “him is falling over? Is that right?”)
- Similarly, you can ask your child to tell you about something that happened when they were with a group of children or family members. Tell them that you are going to listen for correct uses of he and she and give them a point/sticker for each one you hear. See if they can beat their score the next day.
As I said at the beginning, there are an awful lot of pronouns (our, their, his, them etc) – don’t try to correct all of them all at the same time, or you will end up with a very confused child! Just pick one or two, and work on those first, then try others. If you’re teaching other pronouns, you will need to follow the same process, though the activities themselves may change slightly (a topic for another day maybe?)
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