Parents of preschoolers often express concern regarding their children’s speech and language development, wanting to know how their skills “measure up.” While there is a wide range of what is considered “normal” at the age of three, the following milestones should help provide a general guideline of what can be expected at this age. Please consider what you read in the context of your child’s unique development.
A typical three year old understands 1000 words! Children this age should be able to identify a number of large body parts such as tummy, nose, head, and feet, but might not yet be able to identify small body parts such as eyebrow and wrist. They are able to match three to four colors. They understand descriptive concepts such as big and little; simple time concepts such as last night and tomorrow; emotional state concepts such as sad and angry; number concepts such as some and a lot; common category names such as toys, clothes, and animals; and question words. Children this age show an increased ability to listen to and understand conversations, stories, songs, and poems. Three year olds should be able to follow two- to three-step directions involving familiar objects, actions, and routines such as “wash your hands and then come sit down for lunch.”
Children’s expressive language develops rapidly between the ages of two and three. By the third birthday, a child’s vocabulary should grow to over 450 words (probably way more than parents can keep track of). Three year olds should provide their name when asked “What’s your name?” and either verbally respond or hold up fingers to indicate their age. They should understand I, me, and you and refer to themselves as “me” rather than by name. They should understand gender and use he and she appropriately. They should begin to form plurals by adding an “s” (e.g., books) and begin to use past tense (e.g., dropped). They will ask “What’s that? and “Where’s my?” and can answer “What doing?” and “Where?” questions. They will use short, simple three- to five-word sentences such as “I got new shoes” and often use a series of simple sentences to relate ideas.
Children this age begin to tell about their experiences and talk about absent objects. Lying and teasing begins at this age. Three year olds show a wide range of emotions, affection for friends without prompting, and concern for a crying friend. They engage in make believe play and copy adults and friends. They take turns in games. Children this age talk to other children as well as adults and will carry on “conversations” with themselves and their dolls or stuffed animals. They clarify messages in response to a request to do so, produce short dialogues, and verbally introduce and change a topic. The “stories” they tell consist primarily of labels and descriptions, contain sequences of unrelated ideas, and have themes but no plot.
Most children this age have not yet developed the ability to produce all the speech sounds, particularly later-developing sounds such as “l,” “th,” “sh,” “ch,” and “r” and still make developmental errors such as substituting “w” for “l” (“weaf” for leaf) and “f” for “th” (“baf” for bath). Despite these errors, they should be understood 75% of the time by a stranger and most of the time by familiar listeners such as Mom and Dad or their teacher. Three year olds are forming question and negative sentence structures, but may make errors in word order. For example, they might say “Why you not going?” instead of “Why aren’t you going?” Children this age usually apply the general past tense rule to irregular past tense verbs, such as saying “bringed” for brought. Similarly, they apply the general plural rule to irregular nouns, such as saying “mouses” for mice. Children this age may have trouble talking with someone on the phone because the questions asked are often not related to the “here and now.”
Ways to Encourage Your Three-Year-Old’s Language Development
- Talk talk talk. Talking with your three year old will help him expand his vocabulary and learn more complex sentence structures. You can talk in the car, when shopping at the grocery store, when playing in the tub, and when taking a walk.
- Help your three year old to expand her language. If she says, “I rided the boat” you could say, “Yes, you rode the boat at the carnival yesterday.” This may encourage her to add some details of her own and shows her that you are interested in what she has to say.
- Practice counting. Count Cheerios, Goldfish crackers, fingers and toes. Count steps as you go up and down them. Expose your child to other words used to express quantity such as empty, a lot, and some.
- Put objects such as dollhouse furniture, toy food, or toy vehicles into a bucket. Take the objects out, one at a time, and talk about the features of each object. For example, “I see an apple. The apple is red. An apple is a kind a fruit. Apples are crunchy.” Sort the objects into categories.
- Open-ended questions such as “What do you want to do today?” may be difficult for three year olds to answer. But you do want to encourage children this age to make choices, so asking “yes” and “no” questions is not the best either. Instead, try to give him choices such as “Do you want to go to the park or the library today?”
- Don’t turn playtime into school time. Many children this age are starting to name colors, shapes and numbers. If you drill these concepts you might turn your child off, or run the risk of her memorizing them, but not understanding them in context. Language is learned through experience, not flashcards! Play with your child and talk about what is happening (e.g., the two red boats are going under the bridge).
- Continue to read books to your three year old. Stick to ones that have no more than two to three sentences on a page. Books will expose your child to new vocabulary words, reinforce appropriate use of grammar, and teach him about new subjects. Name objects and describe pictures on the pages. Emphasize rhyming words, repeating them so your child hears that they have the same endings. State synonyms for familiar words (e.g., cold, freezing, chilly) and use this new vocabulary in sentences to help your child learn it in context. Talk about feelings, why things happened, and what might come next.