Speech and Language – Milestones for Three Year Olds

Speech and Language – Milestones for 3 Year Olds

Birth to three years of age is the period of most rapid development for young children and provides many of the key building blocks on which all of their later learning and development is based.  So, what exactly, is typical of a three year old’s speech and language? An explosion of language, more words than you can count, and more questions than you can poke a stick at.  This post is all about what most three year olds can say and understand, when to refer to a speech pathologist, and a couple of ideas for activities to promote speech and language development.

What a 3 year old sounds like – Speech sounds

Most three year olds can correctly produces the sounds made by the letters p, b, m, w, t, d, n, g, h, y.  They should pronounce the final consonant sound in a word (ca-t), though it is common for younger children to leave it off. Vowel sounds should sound like those of the adults the child spends most of their time with – yes, you can pick a three year old by their accent.   Most of the time parents or familiar caregivers understand what they are saying, even when they pronounce sounds icorrectly. An adult meeting the child for the first time is likely to be able to understand over half of what a three year old says, but less than mum, or a regular educator.

Red flags for 3 year old speech

If a three year old cannot correctly produce vowels, say sounds such as p, b, m, and w, further investigation is worthwhile.  If they cannot be understood by family or regular caregivers or educators, and especially if theyget frustrated by not being understood, it is recommended they see a speech pathologist.

What a 3 year old says – language

As mentioned above, most three year olds have a lot to say.  Most have over 800 words in their vocabulary and some have many more than that. They can usually participate in short conversations, though often only on topics they are interested in.  Most put three or more words together in a sentence, and use basic grammar.  You should hear past tense verbs (e.g. talked, jumped, ate) even if they sometimes miss the mark (e.g. eated, runned, goed) and plurals (e.g. toy, toys).

Three year olds use language to achieve many different goals including to get something, to ask questions, to play, to seek comfort, or to share a past experience. In general, they welcome and respond to adult suggestions and enjoy interacting and can talk about events that happened yesterday or last week.  As curious explorers of the world around them “why?” is typically a three year old’s favourite question.

In terms of understanding what is said to them, a typical three year old is able to follow a two-part instruction (e.g. “Go to the lounge and get your shoes”).  They should be able to understand who, what, where, when, why questions and match their answers to the right type of question.

Red flags for 3 year old language

If a three year old is demonstrating one or more of the following characteristics, it would be beneficial to consult a speech pathologist:

  • shows poor comprehension of language
  • is only saying single words (or learnt phrases)
  • does not ask “why” questions
  • does not answer “wh” questions, and especially if they echo back questions rather than answering them
  • don’t know a large number of words including different types of words (nouns/names, verbs/actions, describing words/adjectives)
  • is not using little words (e.g. is, the, on, in, are, an)
  • cannot take several turns in a conversation
  • cannot attend to stories or play for longer than a few minutes.

Activities to support speech and language for 3 year olds

Reading, taking, playing and singing are all great opportunities to help your child learn to talk and understand better. They learn by doing so make sure they are actively involved in what you are doing. Talk about what you and your child is doing but you needn’t run a constant commentary.  Pause and give your child opportunities to respond, question, or share their ideas (even if they are not great communicators, yet).  Read books daily, a five minute story time can help develop a love of stories and reading for a lifetime.  When you read a familiar book, or one with a repeated line, stop and let your three year old fill in the missing parts.  You can even make up your own stories from the pictures in a book, or make up a song about it.  Nonsense rhymes and the wrong words in familiar songs are a great way to play with words and humor.


Talkbox has great descriptions of children of different ages as well as everyday tips and activities to try. The newsletter about 3 year olds can be found here.

For ideas about what books your 3 year old might enjoy, check out Growing Book by Book or Goodreads.

For a speech pathology evaluation, search in your local area or contact us.


Interested in working with Connecting Dots?

We are here to help! In order for us to provide the most suitable service and practitioner for you child, simply request a call from us and we will be in touch asap.