Understanding Language Development in Preschoolers

By Kristin Stanberry

It’s fun to watch your preschooler’s growth and measure his height with a yardstick. But how can you measure your child’s development in other areas? For example, how can you be sure he is learning and mastering age-appropriate language skills?

It’s pretty safe to say that parents start talking to, and with, their children from the day they are born (and sometimes earlier!). As a parent and your child’s first teacher, you have spent thousands of hours in conversation with your child. This means that you are in a wonderful position to observe, reflect upon and gather information about whether he is developing language skills appropriate for a 3- to 4-year-old child. The questions and tips that follow will help you understand what your child should be doing and learning —and how you can support his development.

Is your child developing age-appropriate language skills?

It’s helpful to know what basic listening and speaking skills your child should be learning and mastering at age 3 or 4. Review the following list and note how your child is doing in each area.

Listening skills — My child can...

  • Understand most of what is said and follow directions with at least two steps.
  • Understand direction words like “top,” “bottom,” “big,” and “little.”
  • Recognize when words rhyme.
  • Hear (and respond to) someone calling to him from another room.
  • Hear the television or radio at normal volumes.
  • Notice and respond to sounds in the environment (such as a car horn, clock alarm, or the beeping of a kitchen appliance).

Speaking skills — My child can...

  • Speak in complete sentences of four or more words.
  • Talk easily without stuttering or repeating words or syllables.
  • Say or sing familiar songs or nursery rhymes.
  • Correctly name colors, people, objects, and categories of objects.
  • Speak clearly enough that strangers can understand.
  • Use most speech sounds. (Remember that some speech sounds, such as l, r, s, sh, h, y, v, z, and th, may not be fully mastered until age 7 or 8.)
  • Use appropriate verb tenses.
  • Use the pronouns “I,” “you,” and “me” correctly.

Encouraging language development at home

Now that you understand some of the language skills your child should have, you can reinforce those skills and help him or her make further progress. It’s easy (and fun!) to practice language skills with your child throughout the day.
Here are some habits to practice and activities to try:

  • Speak to your child in a clear, correct, and simple manner. Avoid using baby talk.
  • Make conversation with your child a two-way street. Take time each day to listen to and talk with your child.
  • When your child speaks to you, model good listening behavior. For example, pause an activity and make eye contact.
  • Encourage your child to use language (and not just gestures or actions) to express ideas, observations, and feelings.
  • Ask questions that require your child to make and express a choice.
  • Try to enrich and expand your child’s vocabulary.
  • Engage your child in activities and games that require listening and following directions.
  • Read and sing nursery rhymes with your child.
  • Read and tell stories that have interesting characters and easy-to-follow plots. Discuss the stories together.

Note: If your child has a regular babysitter or daycare provider, be sure to pass these tips along to the caregiver.

Promoting language development at preschool

In preschool your child will be immersed in a world of formal and informal learning. Language skills are a critical ingredient for success, both in learning skills and concepts and in getting along with others. To determine how well your child’s language ability is developing, you’ll want to:

  • Talk with your child’s teacher about your child’s language and communication skills and how language skills are taught and reinforced in the classroom.
  • Find out what language skills your child will need to master in order to have a successful start in kindergarten and what, if any, areas are in need of improvement.
  • Try to determine how your child feels about communicating with his teacher and classmates. Does he feel confident and successful in his abilities? Is he frustrated because others don’t seem to understand him? Does he usually understand what others are saying? Can he take turns in 1-on-1 and small group conversations?

Cause for concern? Where to turn for advice and assistance

Are you concerned because your child’s language development seems delayed? Rest assured that “normal” language development doesn’t progress in exactly the same way for all preschoolers. However, you may want to seek help if your child:

  • Was late in starting to speak.
  • Has trouble modulating his voice. (For example: Is his voice too loud or too soft?)
  • Doesn’t always seem to hear what others tell him.
  • Has difficulty understanding, repeating, and following instructions.
  • Has a very limited vocabulary
  • Speaks slowly or without fluency; stutters or doesn’t finish sentences.
  • Has trouble naming familiar people or objects or struggles to retrieve familiar words from memory.
  • Struggles with rhyming or retelling familiar stories.
  • Has a hard time keeping a conversation on topic.

Discuss your concerns with your child’s preschool teacher, pediatrician, and, if necessary, a specialist (such as a speech therapist). If you’re concerned that your preschooler may have a learning disability or delay, you can contact your public school system’s director of Special Education for a diagnostic screening at no cost to you (available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


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