3-4 years

Now your child’s a preschooler, you can expect longer, more complex conversations about all sorts of things. Language development in children aged 3-4 years also includes a growing vocabulary and a greater understanding of the basic rules of grammar. You can certainly look forward to some entertaining stories!

Vocabulary and language development in children at 3-4 years

Your child learns lots of new words by listening to you and other adults and guessing from context. He also learns from new experiences and from listening to stories read out loud. He’ll still understand many more words than he says.

Your child will learn and use:

  • more connecting words like ‘because’, ‘and’ or ‘if’
  • more numbers
  • names for groups of things like ‘vegetables’ or ‘animals’
  • family terms like ‘aunty’ or ‘brother’.

Your child might be able to name basic emotions like ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘angry’.

By four years, your child might know one or more colours and some contrasting concepts like ‘longer’ and ‘bigger’.

Sentences and grammar in language development

Your child might begin to use more complex sentences that include words like ‘because’, ‘so’, ‘if’ and ‘when’ – for example, ‘I don’t like that because it’s yucky’.

Your child will show that she understands the basic rules of language. And she’ll often apply these rules strictly across all examples, not realising how often English breaks its own rules. For example, ‘He runned away’ instead of ‘He ran away’ or ‘There were lots of sheeps’ instead of ‘There were lots of sheep’.

By this age, your child might be using ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘me’ correctly. But he might confuse the use of negatives. For example, if you say, ‘Don’t you want to go to the park?’, he might respond by saying, ‘I don’t not want to go’. 

Making conversation

At this age, your child might tell stories that follow a theme and often have a beginning and end. She’ll often need a lot of prompting to keep the story moving. For example, if you want to hear the end of the story, you might have to ask, ‘And what did the cat do then?’

Your child might reason, predict things and start to express empathy. He’ll also use lots of ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions to find out more about his world – so try to be patient!

As your child gets closer to four, she might start conversations using questions like ‘Guess what?’ She’ll talk about all sorts of different topics and her questions might be more abstract and complex. For example, ‘If it keeps raining, will we have to build a boat to get to Grandma’s?’

By age four, most adults will understand your child, although your child might not pronounce some words the right way. He might still have trouble pronouncing words that include the sounds ‘l’, ‘th’ or ‘r’.

Understanding and language development

When your child doesn’t understand what you say, she might ask you to explain or ask you what specific words mean.

Your child will understand instructions that have more than two steps, as long as they’re about familiar things – for example, ‘Turn off the TV, put on your pyjamas and get into bed’ or ‘When I open the gate, take my hand, then we’ll walk down to the corner’.

Also, your child will understand questions most of the time, especially if they’re about something that’s happening right now, or that he can see. He’ll understand slightly complicated explanations, as long as he can see the results himself. For example, he’ll understand an explanation like ‘When the sun shines on things, it makes them hot. Feel how warm the water in the dog’s bowl is from being in the sun’.

By four, your child might be able to understand and use words to express emotions like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘mad’ or ‘surprised’.

Play, communication and language development

By now, your child will be able to do some simple negotiation with other children. For example, she’ll be able to talk about who can play with a toy first.

At around four years, your child might even be able to explain why he wants an object from another child – for example, ‘Can I have the green pencil? I want to colour in the grass’.

And at this age, your child will begin to use language in role play. For example, she can pretend to be ‘mummy’ and copy her mother’s tone and words.

Children grow and develop at different rates. The information in this article is offered as a guide only. If your child’s language development seems unusually slow and you’re at all concerned, speak with your GP, paediatrican or child and family health nurse. You could also speak with a speech pathologist. If your health professional doesn’t have concerns about your child, but you still do, it’s OK to get another opinion.

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Last updated or reviewed
27-11-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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