Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development - Part 1 - Speaking

10 January 2018

preschool language development stages speech

Language is part of your child’s total development. As with their physical growth, there is a clear and definite developmental pattern to a child’s use of language. There are four distinct skills involved in your preschooler’s language development: speaking, listening (in the sense of comprehending or understanding speech), writing and reading. Today I’ll concentrates on the language skill of speech.

First, it’s important to know that ability in one language skill is not always directly related to competence in another. For example, many young children-- like many adults, too-- are far better speakers than listeners!

The Development of Speech.  Speech is a form of language in which words or sounds are used to convey meanings. And the ability to speak is not necessarily related to the ability to understand. For example, infants make many sounds as they practice vocalizing that probably do not mean nearly what eager adults like to read into them. Three-year-olds, as another example, can sing along, not missing a single word of popular songs, without really knowing what the words mean. Also, many children can sing the alphabet song and not know what letters really mean. So, remember that speaking is not always an indication of truly understanding something.

In the development of speech, there are differences among children in the age at which they begin to learn to speak and the rate with which they are able to speak easily. But no matter the rate, the acquisition of speech develops from general to specific, similar to your little one’s pattern of physical development, from large motor to small motor skills. You can read my blog, The Promise of Your Child’s Early Development - Make the Most of It to understand more about the general pattern of your child’s physical development.

At first, your child’s speech consists of sounds that are vague and difficult to understand. Yet even in these early stages of life (from birth to 36 months), your very young child is able to successfully get her meaning across with a minimum of vocabulary. For example, young toddlers are able to point to things they want, and say, “me.” Their meaning comes across by a single word and gesture.

Gradually over time the development of speech progresses to clear and distinct words that carry specific messages. These are called controlled verbal communication. Generally, by the age of 3 years, children are rapidly building their vocabularies. They continue to increase the number of words in their speaking vocabulary for the next few years. See our Child Development Guide Milestones Section for Mental / Cognitive Development for more information about average number of words generally learned in the preschool ages of 2, 3 and 4 years.

Development of Rules of Speech. As children learn to speak, they begin to put words together in pattern and gradually learn the grammatical rules of their language. They follow a general to specific sequence of language development, from sounds without meaning, then to single words and to two-word sentences, to more complex structures. Your little one moves from saying, “Juice,” to saying “My juice,” to saying, “Give Suni apple juice.” Also, your child will usually use nouns before pronouns. And “I” and “me” are often the first pronouns used.

Preschool children usually learn the names of objects first and gradually make finer discriminations. They notice likenesses and differences. Your preschooler at first may call all four-legged animals as dogs. Later your child may learn to identify dog, cat, cow and horse. As your preschooler continues to learn words and their meanings she is now able to further refine her classification and grammar to little dog and big dog.

In the development of speech rules, children draw generalizations about how words come together to form sentences. Then they over-generalize, not realizing that there are exceptions to rules. For example, if “I cooked the egg” is a correct grammatical construction, then “I tooked the ball” may seem equally correct to your preschooler.  Adding “ed” to every verb , in this case “took” to “tooked” is an example of the overgeneralization of a speech rule very common to preschoolers.

As another example, instead of saying,  “I forgot the picture,” your little one is likely to tell his father than he “forgotted” the picture. Children will learn rules about past tense as they become more familiar with the language. If your preschooler says, “I runned down the hill” she is demonstrating an advanced stage of language development, using the past tense she discovered for herself. In a similar manner, they learn the rules about plurals. If the plural of house if houses, shouldn’t the plural of goose be gooses?

Accepting Children’s Speech. Preschool children hear sounds all around. Adults, other children, radio, computers, cell phones, and television all provide aural stimulation. As children learn to speak, you need to accept the language children produce. Whatever the nature of the sounds they make, they should be encouraged to talk and not be restrained by criticism or corrections. If you establish a habit of frequently correcting your preschooler’s language, you are actually discouraging your little one’s experimentation, play and speech development.

It’s helpful to know that if you speak correctly around your preschooler, your child will usually begin to use words correctly, too. A child who has many chances to verbally interact with adults is likely to develop greater verbal proficiency and confidence in the use of words than one who has not had such experiences. This is one of the reasons we created Skilly-do Chatty-do activities, to help you easily encourage the daily development of your child’s language and social skills.

Because the early stages of language development are so very important, I want you practice these 5 easy activities that support your preschooler’s speech development from the ages of 2- to 3-years-old:

  1. To practice their descriptive language and build vocabulary, keep a box of scraps of materials and small objects on hand. Have your little one select objects, sharing new words with your child to describe them-- like fuzzy, big, red, and so on.
  2. To encourage verbalization, repetition, comprehension and speaking, ask your preschooler questions such as “Show me the floor, the window, the door” and so on. When your child points, say, “Here’s the floor.” “There’s the window.” and encourage your child to imitate you and say the words back each time.
  3. To develop your child’s concept of written symbols, label your child’s possessions. Use your child’s name repeatedly: “Mike’s bed,” “Mike’s toy chest.” “Here’s Mike’s toothbrush.”
  4. To encourage specific and descriptive language, ask, “Which one?” when your child gives a single-word description, and expand on your child’s language. For example, your child says, “Cookie,” and you say, “Yes, this is a ginger cookie.”
  5. To increase their understanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, and to stimulate the use of both, bring your child’s attention to familiar names and symbols. Talk about going to your local grocery store chain or playing with their building blocks called Legos. Identify symbols on products, buildings, and signs. For example, point out that the red, octagon is a sign that says, “Stop.” or the sign on that door that means "restroom."

While this blog covers ages 2- to 3-years-old, speech development for children 4 to 5 years of age builds on the skills developed during these years. During the period from ages 4 to 5, speech development involves learning numbers, shapes, and letters. Children’s books can be valuable sources for practicing all of these concepts in an fun way for preschoolers of this age. Check out our Skilly-do Book Reviews for suggestions on books for preschoolers. Then make the most of your young one's literary time with my blog, Tips for Reading to your Preschooler. And my Get Ready for Big School - PreSchool Skills Checklist, developed from my time as a primary school principal, also has ways that you can help your child's language skills be ready for kindergarten.

Next in my series on Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development is the language skill of listening-- probably something parents don’t feel their children do enough of! Let us know, how you are encouraging your little one’s speech development?

+ Thanks/photo credit goes to Dorothea Lange’s 1942 image of the U.S. allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School in San Francisco. The photo is part of Ms Lange's documentation of the War Relocation Authority's evacuation of families of Japanese ancestry to internment centers during World War II.