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Early Language Development in Children Ages 3-5

By Pam Murphy ; Updated June 13, 2017

Of the many milestones met during the preschool age period, language acquisition is one of the most crucial. Beyond simply being a means of communication with the external world, a child’s normal intellectual and social development depend on the building of language skills in the formative years of ages 3 through 5. Knowing what constitutes typical language development -- and identifying any delays -- helps in monitoring a child’s progress through this exciting period in their lives (see reference 1).

Reading Starts Early

Long before children go to elementary school, reading abilities start to form during the preschool years. Growing vocabulary is needed to comprehend text. Without vocabulary, a child will have trouble figuring out the relationships of words in sentences and decoding unknown words. Children learn this vocabulary from you -- their parents -- from story telling and conversation. The Early Child Care Research Network found in 2005 that a child’s language at age three correlates directly with that child’s reading abilities and word recognition in the third grade. In addition, their oral language predicts their later reading comprehension skills (see reference 4).

Oral Language Development

Preschoolers' speaking ability contributes to their reading ability. Children ages 3 to 5 are developing knowledge of letters and the sounds they make -- known as phonological awareness (see reference 4). For example, a child 3 to 4 years of age should be able to use most speech sounds – although some, like l, r, s, sh, y, v, z and th may not be mastered until 7 years of age. He should speak in sentences of four words or more. He should be able to speak clearly enough that strangers can understand and use verb tenses appropriately. He should sing familiar songs and use the pronouns I, you and me correctly (see reference 2).

Listening and Speaking Skills

As far as listening skills, preschoolers should recognize rhyming words, understand most of what is said to them and follow directions with at least two steps. They should be able to hear and respond to someone calling them, notice and respond to sounds in the environment like an alarm clock or a car horn (see reference 2). They should know at least 900-1000 words by 3 years of age, familiar animal names and body parts, know common opposites like big-little and talk extensively while playing. By age five, children should be able to repeat sentences nine words long and speech should be completely intelligible and grammatically correct (see reference 3).

Parent As Teacher

As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher, having clocked hours of conversation with him from birth or before. You are in a great position to gather information regarding your child’s language progress. Normal language development may not progress the same way for every preschooler, but if you notice that your child does not seem to hear what others tell him, is having difficulty understanding and following instructions, or is speaking slowly or not finishing sentences, then you may wish to seek the help of a pediatrician or possibly a speech therapist. You can even contact your child’s school’s director of Special Education for further evaluation (see reference 2).

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