Language Development: Three Years Old

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When your child hits their third birthday we say farewell to the toddler years and welcome in the preschool years. Children at 3 are becoming more like miniature adults, and their communication is beginning to sound closer to that of adults. Words have taken over from gesturing and vocalising as their main form of communication, and their sentences are becoming longer and more complex.



Vocabularies continue to expand this year, beginning at 3 with on average 1000 words and turning 4 with around 1600. This seems huge, and it is. Between 3 and 4 your child will be saying words that you didn’t even know they knew. Infrequently used or heard, and complex words are being acquired and allow your child to talk about an enormous range of subjects. The names of category words, such as “animals”, “fruit” and “vegetables”, are emerging as your child learns that items can be grouped together. Children will also be learning words that help them make longer and more complex sentences like “if” and “because”.


With a bigger vocabulary and more to say comes longer sentences. Your child will most likely reach their third birthday saying sentences between 3 and 4 words long. By the end of their year as a 3 years old they will be capable of forming what we call “heaped” sentences of upwards of 10 words. These sentences involve “heaps and heaps” of information, and can often run on and on, and use lots of “ands”. As well as being a big step in sentence length and formation, this is also the beginning of narratives, or storytelling. Three year olds will be excited to tell you all about the things they experienced or learned, and will tell big long stories that can often jump from place to place and subject to subject. Your little one is learning so much about their world, and at this age they’re enjoying expressing it.

Asking and Answering Questions

As a child approaches three, they will already be answering a lot of “wh” questions like “what”, “when”, “who” and “where”. After their third birthday, they will not only answer these types of questions, but also begin to ask them. A lot. They’re curious and learning about their world, and acquiring the ability to use “wh” question forms gives them the tools to ask the millions of questions they need answers to.

Receptive Language

Receptively, your 3 year old is becoming harder to stump. By now they understand the words for almost everything in their everyday environment, plus a lot of things that aren’t, and are able to follow three step instructions (e.g. “get your shoes, put them on and we’ll go to the shops”). At this age, your little one is also beginning to ask for clarification when they don’t understand or know something, and they may also be asking what words they don’t know mean.

Colours, Shapes and Numbers

Three is also the time that most children begin to learn academic language sets. Things like colours, numbers and shapes are emerging as you and your preschool or day care begin working on prerequisite skills for the lead up to school.

Speech Sounds

Before three, your child’s intelligibility and correct use of speech sounds may have made them difficult to understand. By three, however, they have acquired enough speech sounds for 75% or more of what they say to be understood by parents, family and even unfamiliar people. At three, a child should be using all vowel sounds correctly, as well as the consonants in the below picture:

p as in -pig- (1)

Learn more about typical language development with these other posts in our language development series:

Birth to Six Months
Six to Twelve Months

One Year Old
Two Years Old
Four Years Old
Five Years Old