Development of complex syntax in the narratives of children with English as an Additional Language and their monolingual peers

  • Disa Witkowska (UCL)
  • Laura Lucas (UCL)
  • Maria Jelen (UCL)
  • Hannah Kin (UCL)
  • Courtenay Norbury (UCL)


English syntax acquisition is crucial for developing literacy but may be challenging for many children learning English as an Additional Language (EAL). This study longitudinally investigates syntactic complexity and diversity of stories retold by children with EAL and their monolingual peers as well as the relationship between syntax and vocabulary. This is a secondary data analysis using data from the Surrey Communication and Language in Education study (SCALES). Sixty-one children with EAL were matched to their monolingual peers on sex, age and teacher-rated language proficiency. Children’s narratives were collected in Year 1 (age 5-6) and Year 3 (age 7-8) and coded for clause type. Dependent variables included Mean Length of Utterance in words (MLUw) and Clausal Density (CD) as measures of syntactic complexity and Complex Syntax Type-Token Ratio (CS-TTR) estimating syntactic diversity. Children with EAL presented syntactically complex and diverse narratives equivalent to monolingual peers in Year 1 and Year 3. Growth rate in syntactic complexity was associated with English vocabulary in Year 1. Among children with low vocabulary, children with EAL developed syntactic complexity at a faster rate than monolingual peers, while the opposite was true in the high-vocabulary group. Children with average vocabulary progressed at parallel rates. Children with EAL and their monolingual peers used broadly the same complex structures but with varying frequency. In this longitudinal study comparing children with EAL and monolinguals on complex clauses, the interaction between emerging bilingualism and vocabulary knowledge in the societal language predicted different patterns of growth in syntactic complexity. Children with EAL frequently use different syntactic structures to achieve similar syntactic complexity and diversity. These findings demonstrate that in early primary school, children with EAL have syntactic skills comparable to their monolingual peers.

Keywords: bilingualism, EAL, syntactic development, complex syntax, grammar, narrative

Published on
07 Oct 2022
Peer Reviewed