Language development in preschoolers

Language development in preschoolers
As your child gets older, you might notice them talking more and more. Here’s how you can help them progress.

By the age of 3, a child generally has the vocabulary to form short sentences made up of a few words. That said, they’ll still make mistakes when they speak. They’ll continue to improve, and by age 5, their language skills will more closely resemble those of an adult.

Language learning from 3 to 5 years old

Age 3 to 4

Should you ask your child to repeat after you?

Your child is starting to understand more detailed instructions and abstract concepts, such as “next door” and “later.” However, they still have a hard time grasping the concept of time.

Their vocabulary is starting to expand and they’re able to speak in complete sentences (e.g., “Daddy went outside”). The length of their sentences is rapidly increasing. They may still forget to use shorter words such as I or my sometimes.

When they want to talk about something they experienced, your little one may tell you what they did that day, who they were with, etc. They’re learning to talk about the past and future and less focused on the here and now.

Your child will be easy to understand most of the time, even by people who don’t know them very well. Their pronunciation is becoming more and more clear.

Age 4 to 5

Your child is starting to understand explanations and instructions that contain complex terms (e.g., “Draw a circle” or “Go behind the chair”). They also have an easier time understanding stories and are able to reflect on certain aspects of them (e.g., the problems and emotions the characters experience).

At this age, your child has a diverse vocabulary and speaks in longer sentences that express more complex ideas (e.g., “I went inside because it started raining”). Their sentences are becoming more adult-like, and they can describe things in greater detail.

They are able to pronounce almost all sounds correctly. However, they may still have trouble producing the “ch” and “j” sounds as well as double consonants blends such as “sp” and “gr.”

How to promote language development

The following tips and activities can help promote the development of your child’s language skills.

Age 3 to 4

  • Pay as much attention as you can to what your child is trying to say. They need to practise speaking to you and gain confidence to develop their language skills.
  • Help your child develop their vocabulary by varying the words you use yourself. Make sure to explain any words they don’t know yet.
  • Don’t shorten your sentences when you talk to them. They will benefit from hearing long, well-constructed sentences.
  • Engage with your child when they play make-believe. When they invent stories, your child will often use phrases that don’t come up every day. This can be a great opportunity to introduce expressions and words they may not hear as often.
  • Talk to them about what they’re doing and what you’re doing, what interests them about a game, what’s happening in a story . . . Always work with your child’s preferences to ensure speaking is fun for them.
  • If you’re having a hard time understanding your child, ask questions about what they’re trying to say or summarize part of what they’ve just said and encourage them to fill in the rest. This will let them know that you care about what they have to say. Encourage the efforts they’re making to communicate by being patient and showing interest.
  • Play a game with your child that involves sorting different cards or items into categories (e.g., animals, modes of transportation). This activity helps your child organize vocabulary words in their head, making it easier to integrate them into sentences later.
  • Read stories with your child that involve problems that need to be solved. Discuss what the characters are feeling and help your child think of potential solutions. This will help improve their language comprehension and sentence construction skills.

Age 4 to 5

  • Listen to what your child is trying to say as often as possible. They need to practise speaking and gain confidence to develop their language skills.
  • Keep helping your child build their vocabulary. Explain the meaning of new words to them. You can also name word categories, such as “modes of transportation,” and use them in appropriate sentences. For example: “Cars, buses, and trains are all modes of transportation.”
  • Keep reading stories with your child that present problems that need to be solved. Discuss what the characters are feeling and help your child think of potential solutions.
  • In everyday life and when looking at books, seize opportunities to ask open-ended questions such as why, when, or how something happened. By asking your child questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, you’ll encourage them to think of and formulate their own sentences.
  • Have fun with sounds. Use a game with illustrated cards (e.g., Loto) and find words that rhyme (e.g., boat and goat). This will encourage your child to focus on the sounds in words, which will help them learn to read once they start school.
  • Tell them jokes and pay attention to what they find funny. Your child’s sense of humour reflects their level of language comprehension and their ability to grasp subtlety. At this age, they are starting to understand that sometimes people say things just to be funny.
Remember that all children learn their native language at their own pace. Some skills will develop early on, whereas others will appear later. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s language development, talk to their doctor or contact the Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec (French only).

Things to keep in mind

  • Between the ages of 3 and 5, children are increasingly developing their vocabulary and learning to formulate sentences that are more and more complex.
  • Around the age of 3, your child will still make mistakes when they speak (in words, sentences, and sounds), but they will get better and better as they reach age 5.
  • You can support your child’s language development by paying close attention to what they’re saying and using complex sentences and diverse vocabulary when you answer them.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, M.Sc., speech-language pathologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2018




Sources and references

  • Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014, 180 pp.
  • Daviault, Diane. L’émergence et le développement du langage chez l’enfant. Montreal, Chenelière Éducation, 2011, 256 pp.