Language Development in 11-13 Year Olds

Changes in the brain cause a shift in children's thinking and speaking. Learn more about your middle schooler's development.

By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Language Development in 11-13 Year Olds

Sometime between the ages of 11 and 12, most children will begin to reason, think abstractly, and apply logic. In Piagetian terms, they have completed concrete operations and have entered the formal operations stage. Unless there is another issue, they are strong readers and have begun to use their language and literacy skills across the subject areas in school, and as a tool in other areas of importance (e.g., teaching themselves to do magic tricks or how to make duct tape projects).* 

Formal operations, which will continue into adulthood, marks a shift in children’s thinking and speaking. Just before puberty, there is a surge of gray matter production (neurons and connections). Continuing is the growth of white matter (the layer that envelopes nerve fibers) in the language-centered parts of the brain. After age 12, both areas of growth fall off, which marks the end of the critical period for learning languages (i.e., if language is learned after age 12, the speaker will speak with an accent). 

As a result of cognitive development and brain changes, 11-13 year olds demonstrate an increased ability to look beyond literal interpretations and understand the metaphoric uses of language. They are able to comprehend proverbs and detect sarcasm. You child can use this site to support these more abstract uses of language. Middle schoolers are ready to hold complex ideas, and manipulate them in their head. For example, they are beginning to understand how to form analogies. Want to extend this skill in your child? Give these analogies a try. With this ability to understand the subtleties of language comes the ability to understand multiclause sentences and an increase in metalinguistic awareness (the ability to think about how language is used—to persuade, to correct, to endear, etc.).

Vocabulary continues to expand, often in direct relation to the amount a child reads. While a child in first grade may have between 8,000-14,000 words, a high school graduate may have upwards of 80,000. To foster your child’s vocabulary, encourage him to take a look at Word Dynamo, a fantastic site for creating word lists, but also for playing fun vocabulary enhancing games. In addition to an increased vocabulary size, tweens and young teens are also increasing their understanding of how to use words with multiple meanings, how to apply idioms successfully (e.g., “I was like a fish out of water at that audition.”), and the correct use of sarcasm. Want to see where your child is with understanding idioms? Try this paint-by-idiom interactive.

By middle school, children use language functionally, and adjust their choice of words or level of sophistication to suit the context (e.g., lunchroom or Facebook vs. essay or exam). Fitting in to their peer group takes on paramount importance, and children will select vocabulary based on cultural or other factors (e.g., children may begin to swear to fit in with peers, or use the slang of their identified cultural group). Children this age are better able to read or anticipate the needs of their listener. They are able to adjust their speech to correct for misunderstandings and can respond to the intent or tone of the communication, as opposed to the literal words. They can better contribute to and extend conversations, maintaining interactions and participating more socially. 

Children’s understanding of syntax is also advancing. For example, they can understand the difference between active and passive voice (e.g., the truck hit the car vs the car was hit by the truck). They are able to mentally “hold” subject/verb agreement and noun/pronoun agreement across a discussion or piece of writing. Your child can use this site to practice and support more complex grammar usage. 

Children this age can understand both concrete and abstract themes in reading, and can distinguish author voice. They are also able to identify character traits as they relate to the story. Check in on your child’s abilities with this cornerstone of literacy through this activity.

Children’s writing abilities at this age improve as well. They are able to write extensively to support their opinion or to formulate an argument. They can correctly use complex sentence structure in their writing, such as colons and semicolons. Cultural and educational background influence overall language development, with the differences being evident by kindergarten and remaining stable across development.  

Children’s increased attention span impacts their writing in that the cognitive load that is necessary to recall and sequence a story over time is lessened (try out this activity to check-in on your child’s sequencing abilities). As a result, they are better able to focus on an individual piece and carry through writing to editing and publishing. Tweens’ more highly developed schema (background knowledge and experiences) facilitates greater idea development and improved metacognitive skills which ensures self-monitoring of facts and grammatical structures. It also ensures rereading and editing. Their ability to think abstractly allows them to create new kinds of stories, ones beyond their set of direct experiences, and to better integrate theme across writing. 

The teen years are when more emphasis is place on grammatical form and mechanics, and for many children, this is the end of their love of writing. Encourage your child to express himself in all sorts of written forms, from autobiographies, to fortunes, to songs, to bumper stickers, to scripts, journal entries, travel brochures, etc. There are many creative ways to invite children to express themselves with words. Want to spark creative writing? Encourage your child to ask the Genie or check the journal jar. Your child should try this online idea generator

*Much of your child’s academic success and confidence will be related to his ability to read and write. If your child needs support to do well, now is the time to ensure he does not fall (further) behind. You can find some good books for reluctant readers here.

Stages & Milestones
Cognitive Skills
Age 13
Age 12
Age 11
Child Development and Behavior
Communication and Language Development
Middle School