Developmental milestone: Talking

Talking: What to expect when

By age 3, your child should have a vocabulary of around 300 to 500 words. And by age 4, he may know a whopping 1,500 words or more, though the vocabulary that preschoolers use varies widely. He’ll also be able to speak in sentences of six to eight words and mimic most adult sounds. A preschooler’s speech should be clear enough that strangers can make sense of most of what he says, though he may still mispronounce many words. At this age, he should be able to understand a two- or three-part directive, such as “Pick up the paper, fold it in half, and then bring it to me.”

What you’ll hear

Does it seem as if your child is speaking nonstop? This chatty stage is crucial to his learning new words and getting comfortable using and thinking with them. A good grasp of language allows your child to express his feelings, needs, and desires, and the more sophisticated his speech and comprehension of words, the more tools he’ll have at his disposal for thinking, telling stories, and talking with you, his siblings, peers, and other adults. Some things to listen for:

Pronunciation: At age 3, your child may still struggle with certain consonant sounds, such as using a w sound for r, saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit,” or d for th, saying “dis,” “dat,” “den,” for “this,” “that,” and “then.” Don’t worry; certain consonant sounds are tough for a preschooler to pronounce. For instance, producing a t sound instead of a k, such as “tate” for “cake,” is a common substitution, and nothing to be concerned about unless he’s doing it past age 5. Consonant sounds such as k and g are also hard for preschoolers because they’re produced at the back of the mouth and your child can’t actually see how to make the sound.

Lisping: Your child may also lisp or pronounce the s sound like a th. “My sister is seven” becomes “My thithter ith theven.” If your child’s s sounds this way, chances are you needn’t be alarmed. Many children lisp, and most outgrow it with no intervention by age 7.

Flow: It’s perfectly normal for children around age 3 to speak in choppy, labored language. But somewhere between 3 and 4 your child’s thoughts should start to flow more in complete sentences with far less effort than he needed when he just turned 3. Most of the time, your child shouldn’t have to stop and think about what to say or how to say it. He should be able to begin to tell you simple stories.

Stuttering: While it can cause parents concern, stuttering at this age is a normal developmental phase that many children go through. Your child is in the midst of a great leap in his language skills, so it’s natural that he may have some difficulty putting his sentences together fluently. (Before every leap forward, there is typically a period of disintegration, followed by integration of the new skills.) His rapidly developing brain is trying to pull up the right words in the right order. In the process, he may repeat the whole word or first syllable (not just the first sound); this is what most people think of when they think of stuttering. You may notice your child stutters more when he’s tired, excited, or upset. Most kids outgrow it without any intervention by age 5 or 6.

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