Your Child’s Speech and Language: 3 Years to 4 Years

Can you believe your baby is turning three? Time goes by too fast, doesn’t it? And this year your child is going to be learning so much. He is like a little person now as you leave the toddler years and head into the preschool years. Can you believe it? A little person. So Let’s see what he will be up to this year!

Development from 3 to 4 Years

When he first entered the toddler years, your child was just starting to speak! he had maybe a few words but was still communicating primarily with nonverbal means. Today as he leaves the toddler years and enters into the preschool years, he not only is talking but should be able to hold a short conversation with an adult. Gone should be the days of pointing and grunting and hopefully this year will bring you a break from the “terrible twos” (unless of course, your child is like my daughter and the three’s are WAY worse…but I digress…)


Cognitively, your child will be working on learning a lot of pre-acadmic skills in this next two year period. There is a wide range of normal here which is influenced by many factors including interest and exposure, but during this time your child will be learning colors, shapes, numbers, letters, counting, and other basic concepts that will prepare him for kindergarten. He will start to understand the concepts like morning and night and locative concepts like in, under, on, through, up, down, etc. He will be starting to enjoy books with more complex story lines and will be able to follow along. He will continue to enjoy hearing the same stories over and over like in the past, but it will take less time for him to have them memorized now 😉

This is also the time period that you will able to start to use a little gem we call “first-then.” Your child should have a good idea of cause/effect as well as a general knowledge about routines and sequencing (i.e. first we put toothpaste on the tooth brush, then we brush our teeth, then we rinse our tooth brush). This means that when your child is throwing a fit for something, you can start to explain that FIRST he must _____ and THEN he can ______. I use this ALL THE TIME with my own children (my 22 month old doesn’t get it yet) and with my clients. With children with delays I use a visual first/then system until they are ready for just the verbal. Anyway…this is a great method to help them understand that they must do something first before they can do something else, and this is the age that is often starts to become effective.

Another cool thing during this time period is your child’s ability to understand things beyond right this second. Toddlers basically see the world for the here and now and do not talk about the past or future. But this will all change now that he is entering the preschool years. He now understands that there is time that existed in the past and time that exists in the future and you will see this as he starts to talk more and more about the past and the future. My daughter is almost four and currently in the “I did that when I was baby” phase. In fact, we hear this a lot right now. She also talks a lot about our trip to Disneyland when she was 2.5 and talks about our future trip to Disney we have planned for next summer.

Receptive Language

Receptively (what he can understand), he will be working on answering who, what, where and why questions of increasing length and complexity this year. At three he may be answering simple questions like “Where do you wear your shoe” but by the end of this year he should be able to explain WHY we wear shoes and WHY we do a lot of other things like take baths and wear our seat belts. In addition to answering questions, he will also be working on being able to follow longer and more complex directions that you give him and will be able to remember more information at once. By the time he is four he should be able to follow directions with multiple steps easily. His receptive vocabulary is growing and growing and he is learning the labels for new things every day. In fact he should be able to understand well over 1200-1500 words.

Expressive Language

Expressively (what he says) this year will be huge in terms of his vocabulary, syntax and semantics skills (grammar), and storytelling/narration skills. At age three he should have around 1000 words (give or take) and by age 4 he should have closer to 1600 words in his expressive vocabulary. He will be using his words to communicate primarily now and will be using them to request things and activities, label things, describe things, comment on things, asking questions and answering questions. This year he will be learning how to put together longer and longer utterances on increasing complexity. Rather than just saying “I saw a bear” he will be able to tell you all about the bear “I saw a huge, black bear at the zoo, mommy! And he had huge claws and was climbing the tree!” At the beginning of this time, we expect that he is putting 3-4 words together but by age 4 he will be putting endless words together. Towards the end of this time frame, your child should be able to tell people his whole name and (as long as you’ve been talking about it) should be able to tell you what city he lives in and maybe even what state (though the concepts may still be a little hard for him to understand).

Speech and Articulation Skills

I feel like this is the most important part of this post. Why? Because the majority of the children that I see for speech therapy between the ages of 3-5 that do not have a medical or behavioral diagnosis (i.e. Down syndrome, Autism, intellectual disability) are coming to me for speech delays. Specifically, for phonological delays with a small number having motor planning delays like Childhood Apraxia of Speech and a small number having fluency delays like stuttering.

At age three, your child’s speech should be at LEAST 75% intelligible (understandable) to strangers, despite some age appropriate articulation errors (like wabbit for rabbit and dat for that). If you or strangers have difficulties understanding your child’s speech at age three, I encourage you to get a screening through your local school district (if you are in the US). Read my post on phonological delays as well as my post on articulation delays for some more in depth information on this topic. But the bottom line is that if your child is hard to understand, have him looked at at least. Children with early speech and language delays are more at risk for later learning issues so get treatment early (if it’s needed).

And as I talked about last week, your child may exhibit some stuttering like behavior during this time of rapid speech and language development. There is a *normal* level of this behavior but if you are concerned, it is best to have an SLP at least take a look, especially if your child appears to get *stuck* on words (where no sound actually comes out) or if he is becoming frustrated or if he is making odd facial expressions or body movements while trying to speak. These can be signs of a more serious issue that would need intervention. You can read more about stuttering HERE.

Social and Play Skills

Socially, your child should be starting form friendships with children he spends time with (school, neighbors, park, church). He will be learning how to use his language to navigate through his play schemes with friends and use his language to give and follow directions with both peers and adults. He should be using eye contact with peers and adults when he is having a conversation.

In his play, you should see him using more and more symbolic play (like using a play banana as a phone or using the couch as a road for his cars) and pretend play over this next year. In fact by the time he turns four, he should be engaging in a great deal of active pretend play and “make believe.” You might see him acting out some of his real life experiences or things he observes in his world, like a trip to the zoo or baking cookies. This is also the time that he should start to understand the concept and value in sharing and taking turns, and he will begin to take part in cooperative play with his peers (actually playing with them vs. next to them). He may become more interested in playing dress up during this time and hopefully will begin to really understand and participate in cleaning up his toys.

This is the age that “let’s pretend” will emerge, most likely closer to age 4. This is such a fun age. My own daughter and her friends will take turns saying “let’s pretend…..” and then fill in the blank for their play scheme. Boys might start to get really into super heroes, cars, and other play schemes that require lots of movement and action. This isn’t to say that girls won’t be taking part in this play though! At school my almost 4 year old “chases the boys” and plays games where they lock each other in dungeons! I don’t even know where they come up with this stuff 😉

WHEW. That was a LOT. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? I’d love to hear them!


American Speech-Language Hearing Association Website (2011). How does your child hear and talk? Birth to one year. Retrieved from (9-1-2012)

Lanza, J.R. & Flahive, L.K. (2008). LinguiSystems guide to communication milestones: 2009 Edition. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems, Inc. Retrieved from (9-1-2012)

McLaughlin, S. (1998). Introduction to language development.  San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group, INC.

DISCLAIMER: There is a wide range of “normal” when it comes to children’s development. The age ranges used in this series are only estimates. Please remember that this information is for educational purposes only and in no way replaces the assessment by a qualified medical professional. If you feel your child has delays in his/her communication skills, please speak to your pediatrician or locate a speech pathologist in your area for an assessment. Be sure to read the full TERMS OF USE on this site for more info. For tips on how to find an SLP in your area read HERE.


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  1. says

    I found your blog through a link by a friend to your toy lists and was really interested! What a great post. I am a speech therapist who is at home with my kids right now, but I just LOVE early speech and language development and this is such a fantastic resource to point parents toward instead of all the inaccurate information “out there” on the internet. As a side note, my daughter is turning three in a week and just seeing your description of typical language development confirms to me how incredible her language and play is (at 2.5 she was doing a lot of the almost-4-year language skills). I can only attribute it to the amount of reading and play we do together- I definitely do NOT “do” speech therapy with her as some people assume when they hear her language and speech! Anyway, thanks for taking the time to write these excellent posts, I will be bookmarking you and referring parents who have concerns about their child’s language to your blog!

    • Katie says

      Sarah WELCOME! I’m so glad you found me :) Isn’t it crazy watching your own children develop language? It has been so much fun watching my two so far. Thanks for sharing my blog with others!

  2. says

    Thank you for this info. I am a Preschool teacher and there are a few kids in my class that I am concerned about. I was wondering what info to pass on to the parents, what testing to recommend, and where to point them for additional help. Thank you for giving me a place to start.

  3. RCA says

    Hi, my son will be 4 in October and he has not spoken a word as yet. I took him to a speech therapist who tells me that nothing is wrong with him and some kids takes longer to talk. I am beginning to get worried as I would like him to start preschool in September but he is not talking. What are your suggestion? Can you help? Thank u!

    • says

      Hi there, my recommendation is to get second opinion ASAP. A typical thee year old speaks in short sentences, so it is concerning to hear your son has no words at all. Good luck to you!

  4. says

    Your blog is so informative! I’m really appreciating all that you’ve written. I have a 3 year old who talks like an adult, she is so aware of the what, where and why. And now I’m seeing it all again with my 12mo and enjoying reading your stage appropriate posts.
    Thanks again :)

  5. Suzette says

    This is a great website – full of fantastic information! I am an early intervention SLP and most of my kids get discharged at age three. So many parents want to know what to expect for their kids after they are done seeing me at age three and I’m going to be recommending this page. Thanks!

  6. lolly says

    Hi there. I enjoyed reading ur article. My son who is now 3 years didnt start talking until about 2 years. I sought the help of a speech therapist and paid more attention to his speech. He has remarkably improved. The only concern i have now is that some of his words are mispronounced especially when compared to his female colleagues at school. My question is that will this in anyway affect his speech as an older child?

  7. Nikki says

    Is it normal for a child with a speech / language delay to also have behavioural and social issues once the comprehension and the sentence structure is beginning to develop? I have an almost 4 year old who had a speech / language delay and is coming along brilliantly with his speech however 4 months in and he is still socially inappropriate when attempting to play with other children ie he will push and become so excited that it’s hard to enforce limitation.

    • says

      Hi Nikki, yes we can see some behavioral and/or social issues in children with speech/language delays. We also see these in children with other delays as well so if you haven’t already, I’d be sure to have other issues ruled out in addition to the speech/language delays. Good luck!

  8. says

    I just found your blog and found this post helpful. I have two children (5 and 3). Both of them have been diagnosed with ASD and mixed-receptive expressive language disorder. Do you have any posts that could help me with this? Thanks again.

    • says

      By the way, the ASD diagnosis is very new for my 3 year old daughter and my 5 year old son was diagnosed in March of this year so neither of them have started speech therapy as the wait lists in our state are long.

  9. Rakshit Jaitely says

    Dear Katei, my son will turn 3 in Nov 14. He has a habbit of thumb sucking. He also has a delayed spech. he speaks very few words( vocab of around 10 words). although he understands common commands like sit up, give me the toy, lets sleep, lets eat, lets play. he is toilet trained and informs most of the time also.
    We put him in a play school and he has now become more active and tries to speek many words, not clearly but attempts.
    do we need to consult a speech therapist now.