Early Language Development in Children Ages 3-5

Updated November 21, 2016

The preschool years, particularly between the ages of 3 and 5 years, are especially significant for language development. Children's language development undergoes tremendous growth, reflecting their cognitive development. Both expressive language, which is language that is communicated by the child through words and gestures, and receptive language, which is the child's ability to understand spoken and nonverbal communication, increase rapidly during this period.


Parents can do a great deal to aid a child's language development, and most of it is simple and natural. Talk to your child as you share your day. Tell your child what you are doing, ask your child questions and listen carefully to what your child shares with you verbally. Don't feel compelled to correct a child's grammatical or pronunciation mistakes. Just continue using language correctly, and the child will pick up on the correct usage. You want your child to express thoughts and ideas freely, and overcorrection stymies that.

Read to your child everyday, making certain to make it an engaging experience by asking your child questions as you read. Teach your child songs, fingerplays and rhymes. Preschoolers love to memorise, and rhythm is a big helper with that. Telling rhymes with a beat helps children remember better. Also, make certain your child has interactions with other children of varying ages because it will increase their language skills.


Three-year-olds ask lots of questions, and as their knowledge increases, so do their vocabularies. A typical three-year old knows between 900 and 1000 words and can be understood in his speech at least 90 per cent of the time. They use the pronouns "I," "me" and "you" correctly. They are often beginning to use prepositions correctly but may only have mastered a few at this point such as "in," "on" and "under."

Some receptive language milestones for a 3-year old include following two-part instructions, understanding the names of most commonly encountered objects, understanding gender differences, knowing their own full name and knowing the names of most major parts of the body.

Expressive language milestones for a 3-year-olds include using plurals correctly most the time and speaking in three- or four-word sentences consistently. At this age, children use verbs often and ask plenty of why and how questions.


Four-year-olds experience an explosion in vocabulary, usually having around 4,000 to 6,000 words. They can communicate their emotions, desires and questions well and use language creatively to convey meaning. For instance, if they don't know the correct term for an object, they will use other vocabulary to rename it. An example is if a child doesn't know or remember the term "hob," he might refer to it as the "stove's chimney."

Receptive language milestones include knowing the names of colours, knowing what "same" and "different" mean and following three-step directions.

Expressive language milestones include using sentences of five or six words, using the past tense correctly (although they may not yet know all exceptions to rules), using up to four prepositions, repeating up to four digits and relating personal experiences through chronological stories.


Five-year-olds typically have vocabularies of 5,000 to 8,000 words, and their language abilities are becoming more sophisticated. They use pitch and inflection more and are learning to relate stories in more detail and can carry on conversations, taking turns speaking. They love talking, and the bathroom vocabulary ("poophead," "pee-pee trousers") that may have begun at age 4 has not dissipated yet. They love telling jokes; learning big, fun-sounding words; and playing with language.

Receptive milestones for this age group include understanding number and size references, as well as time concepts.

Expressive milestones include using complex and compound sentences, using adjectives and adverbs, counting to ten, speaking grammatically correct sentences consistently, and using the future tense. At the end of fifth year, children can give their own address.


Although all children reach milestones at their own rate and each child is an individual, there are some warning signs that indicate your child may be experiencing a language delay. If your child is significantly behind in a number of milestones listed or if it is noticeable that your child lags behind his same-aged peers, speak to your child's paediatrician about getting an evaluation. Most likely, the doctor will also want to test your child's hearing to make certain that is not a factor in the language delays. If your child is experiencing language delays, you will likely be referred for speech therapy services as a separate therapy or as part of a preschool program. Getting help early can rectify problems and keep them from getting significantly worse.

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About the Author

Katlyn Joy has been a freelance writer since 1982. She graduated from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville with a master's degree in writing. While in school she served as graduate assistant editor of "Drumvoices Revue" magazine.