Communication in Children 2 to 3 years

I feel privileged to have Julie Miller guest posting for me today. Julie shares her expertise in the field of speech pathology with us in an age related series about communication in children.

Communication in children: From 2 – 3 years

Communication in Children 2 to 3 years

From 2 years of age, our toddlers are becoming much more verbal. Until 18-24 months, much of a toddlers’ communication is primarily non-verbal (expressed through play, gesture, sound effects and shared experiences), but this begins to change from age 2.

It is also from about 2 years of age that gender differences emerge. Ever heard someone say “Girls develop so much faster than boys”?  When it comes to communication, this is true. Girls tend to reach the stage of using mostly verbal communication (talking rather than gesture etc) from around 18 months. For boys it tends to be closer to 2 years of age. Even among children of the same gender, there is wide discrepancy in communication skills at age 2. Some children are beginning to use their first single words at this age. Some children are chattering away in full sentences by age 2. So when should we be concerned?

Red flags of communication development:

At 2 years, most children are:

* Confidently using pretend play and extending play episodes (e.g. loading blocks into a truck, pushing truck to another location, dumping blocks or feeding dolly, cuddling dolly, wrapping dolly and putting dolly to bed)

* Using communication (verbal and non-verbal) to make things happen (e.g. pointing to preferred choice of food or drink, asking for a toy, pointing out an aeroplane in the sky for an adult to look at)

*Using communication for make requests (ask for something), refuse an object or activity and share an observation with a parent/ other person.

* Understanding and following simple single-part instructions (e.g. “get your shoes”, “give the ball to mummy”).

* Beginning to answer simple questions (e.g. “what’s that?”, “who’s that?).

* Using around 50-100 single words (these are not all clear, but can be understood in context) and beginning to use some 2 word phrases (e.g. mummy go, push car.

By 3 years, most children are:

* Following 2-step related commands (e.g. “Pick up the book and put it on the table”).

* Using up to 900 words (though I don’t know who would still be counting! Even as a Speech Pathologist, I stopped counting my daughter’s words at 500, and my son’s (second child) at about 150).

* Using different types of words: nouns (object words e.g. dog, ball), verbs (action words e.g. run, stop, go), adjectives and adverbs (describing words e.g. hot, dirty, happily), negatives (e.g. no, not), words for recurrence (e.g. more, again). It is important for sentence development that children have words from all these categories. I have seen children in therapy with literally hundreds of single words, but few sentences, because they are only using nouns!

* Using 3-4 word sentences, mostly simple sentences (e.g. The boy jumped).

* Using some grammar in sentences: plurals (e.g. shoes), -ing endings (e.g. running), pronouns (e.g. me, I, he) and prepositions (location words e.g. on, under, in).

* Able to be understood 80% of the time by an unfamiliar adult.

As you can see, there is quite a jump in expectations of children’s verbal language from 2 years to 3 years of age. If you have any concerns about your child’s language development having read the checklists above, please contact a local Speech Pathologist (through your school, community health centre or private clinic). Also, feel free to drop me an email: julie (at) theusefulbox (dot) com if you want to ask me any questions privately…

How can we help our children to make those big leaps in language that we expect between 2 and 3 years of age?

Helpful Hints for promoting language development

from 2-3 years

boys talking communication in children 2 to 3 years

1) Promote joint conversation

In order to do this effectively, you need to observe your child. What is his/ her focus of attention? What does he/she enjoy talking about? What is most meaningful to your child? Talk about these things in context. Avoid just giving instructions and asking questions of your child. Spend time commenting on what he/ she is doing and playing together.

2) Read with your child daily and introduce nursery rhymes

An easy way to introduce your child to more complex (but meaningful) language is by sharing books. In order to promote a shared reading experience, observe what your child is doing. Don’t just keep plowing on through the book if your child is on the other side of the room! Engage your child with the pictures. If the text is too much for their attention or comprehension at this stage, just label or describe the pictures. Ask your child to point things out, etc… 

Nursery rhymes are invaluable in terms of both language and later literacy development. Read this post if you want to know more: English for Toddlers — Nursery Rhymes.

3) Simplify your language

Simplifying your language is really just that – making your language easier for your toddler to follow. Try to aim your language at the level just above the language your child is using. You want to show your child what they are aiming for, in terms of language.

If your child is not using any words, or only a few single words, you would mostly be using single words, with a few two-word phrases (e.g. Child points to daddy and grunts or says “dah”…Parent may say “yes, daddy!” or Child says – “daddy”…Parent may say “daddy’s home“, “look daddy”, “daddy go”)

When your child is beginning to use more language, you continue to use what they say as a guide, adding one or two words above what your child says (e.g. Child says “Daddy ball”… Parent says “Daddy throw ball”, “Give daddy ball” or Child says “Give ball daddy”… Parent says “Mummy give ball to daddy”)

It really isn’t hard in theory, but can be hard to actually do this in practice. It does take some time to think about how you can simplify your language, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

4) Model specific vocabulary or grammar

Modeling is aboutaltering your speech/language to help your child’s communication development. There is no response required from your child. You do not provide any direct feedback on what your child says or how they say it. You simply use your child’s language output as a guide to determine how/ what you will model.


a)  Child says “I goed shops”

      Parent says “Oh, you went to the shops, did you?”

b)  Child says: “Her took it”.

       Parent says “Oh, she took it” (with emphasis on “she”).

Do not ask you child to say the sentence again or “drill” the error (e.g. make them say it correctly over and over). Provide the correct model, with emphasis, and then move on in the conversation. 

The hardest part of language modeling is trying to identify language goals that are relevant to your child. You may need a Speech Pathologist or “tuned in” friend to help you determine appropriate goals helping your child’s communication development.

5) Consider social interaction, play skills and speech sound development

These are all topics requiring posts in themselves, but all can have a huge impact on communication development. If you have any concerns with your child’s ability to interact with peers and adults, to demonstrate appropriate attention to task in play situations, or to play appropriately, consult a Speech Pathologist or paediatrician (or again, feel free to email me with any questions).

Speech sounds are not expected to be clear to unfamiliar adults until after 3 years of age. It is important however to begin to observe patterns of errors in your child’s speech after age 2. If your child seems to be very inconsistent with speech productions (e.g. produces the same word completely differently on different occasions) or his/her speech is regularly unable to be understood by close family members, a consult with a speech pathologist may be warranted. I hope to expand on speech sound development/ articulation in a later post.

For more information on communication in babies (0-1 year) and children (1-2 years) see my previous guest posts:

Baby Communication: Newborn to 1

Communication in Children: 12 months to 24 months

What changes are you observing in your child’s communication at the moment?

Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Speech Pathologist, wife, mother and blogger. She has worked in private practice, community health and early intervention programs since graduating in 2000. Julie blogs at  The Useful Box.

Read Julie’s Other Posts

Baby Communication: Newborn to 1

Communication in Children: 12 months to 24 months

Communication in Children: 2-3 years

Communication in Children: 3-4 years

Communication in Children: Development of Speech Sounds: 0-5 years

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  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 9:13 am

    This is such a useful article thanks for sharing:)

    • Reply
      April 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      @Julia, Glad you found it helpful Julia.

  • Reply
    Kelly Be A Fun Mum
    April 20, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Wonderful informative post again Julie. Thank you so much. My son is now 3 and a half and his vocab has just exploded! It’s wonderful! I believe modeling vocabulary and grammar is just so important and you’ve given such great examples.

    I had to learn to simplify my language for my daughter with special needs…this really helped in communication and comprehension. Her vocabulary is actually VERY good but as paediatrician said, she seems like she knows more than she does…her comprehension is not what it seems…and once I simplified my language, it helped heaps!

    Thanks Julie…really appreciate you.

  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Thank you so much for this article. It is very useful to have it set out like that…

    My one question is “where does a made up language fit in? My son speaks well and is quite articulate (according to his kindy teachers) but he also made up a language that he uses with us. Is this part of imaginative play? Or should I be worried?”


    • Reply
      April 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm

      @Lattejunkie, Hi Lattejunkie. Good question. I would love to know how old your son is? Kindy in NSW is age 5-6 years. Is that what you are talking about, or younger?

      The reason I ask is that many children go through a period of “jargon” speech prior to (or sometimes at the same time as) the development of real language. This can sound just like a real language as children generally mimic the intonation and voice fluctuations of real speech. This occurs usually between 12 months – 2.5 years. Use of this “jargon” speech tends to decrease as children develop more real language.

      Jargon speech is also more common in (though not limited to) children with fluctuating hearing levels (e.g. due to recurrent ear infections), difficulties with attention or children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

      In an older child, with no language delay or difficulties, with adequate vocabulary development etc, I would not be too concerned. In that case, you are right to assume it is probably just part of imaginative play.

      If you are getting concerned, I would start by telling your son that you don’t understand what he is saying and ask him to tell you in “real words”. If he can easily tell you in “real” language, he is probably just enjoying playing with different sounds and combinations.

      Hope that helps.

      • Reply
        April 20, 2011 at 5:30 pm

        Thanks so much for your reply. You have allayed my fears 🙂

        He is just 3 and has been checked for hearing issues and got an all clear.

        I have taken to asking him to use his “real words” to explain what he means and that has worked quite well. It’s just annoying when I have to constantly defend him to others!

        Thank you so much again!

  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Love these ideas, Julie. You have such a great, no-nonsense way of explaining so parents can grasp the salient points quickly.

    I am also interested in your answer to Lattejunkie’s question!

  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Depressingly I think Heidi is still around the 3yo mark, now she is 6yo. But at least we know why and have been in intervention for years and getting help.

    Great post 🙂 I know how hard it was for me to figure out what Heidi should/shouldn’t be doing given her older sisters language development had been so advanced. Very helpful to parents like me who are concerned to have a easy to follow reference.

    • Reply
      April 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm

      @Marita, Glad it was helpful Marita. I know you are doing a fantastic job for Heidi and are heading in the right direction.

  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Thankyou I found this very imformative as I have a 24 month old girl who is very talkative and now realise how different in development that boys and girls are at differnt stages of growth.

    • Reply
      April 20, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      @Hannah, Thanks Hannah. Yes, some of our 2 year old girls don’t stop!

  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    very informative…..thanks

  • Reply
    April 20, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    What a great post, thank you.

    My boy is 27 months and very vocal – he’s ticking all the boxes you set out for 3 year olds. I wonder what effect birth order and personality have on early speech development. My daughter, who is nearly 5 and in kinder, has wonderful grammar and quite a sophisticated vocabulary, but her speech (but not her comprehension) seemed delayed compared to her peers, until about 2 and a half, when it all came pouring out in a big rush. It was as though someone flicked a switch one day and all of a sudden she caught up.

    I wondered if it happened that way because of her temperament. She’s not a big risk taker and a bit of a perfectionist, but doesn’t seem to ‘do’ trial and error. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Reply
      April 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      @Sarah, Hi Sarah,

      With regards to birth order, the general pattern from research is that first children (or only children) have slightly better language skills (measured by verbal IQ) at 6 years. I think the difference is minimal, something like 4 IQ points.This supports the notion that adult speech and language input is more important in early language development than peer (or sibling) speech and language input. So, parents need to keep sharing language activities with their 2nd and subsequent children, even if they are being talked at by older siblings all day!

      Regarding personality, you made a great observation. Not sure if there is any research out there, but definitely from my clinical observations, children who are “risk takers” tend to develop slightly earlier (with more mistakes!) than those who aren’t willing to fail (trial and error learners).

      My eldest daughter has a similar temperament to yours and, although she was an early talker, she was quite delayed with her gross motor development (didn’t walk until almost 18 months). Her speech has always been much clearer than my son’s, who is more of a “risk taker”. My son uses a lot of words/ phrases for his age (21 months), but his speech is quite unclear (not a concern at his age).

      In a therapy context, I find the children who are risk takers generally make quick progress at the beginning and then continue to make steady gains in their communication skills, whereas the non “trial and error” learners need more time to develop rapport with the clinician and tend to progress a little more slowly at first, then make huge leaps all of a sudden.

      Thanks for a great question!

    • Reply
      February 18, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      Good to see a talent at work. I can’t match that.

  • Reply
    April 21, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Really enjoyed this. Our daughter is three and was certainly an early developer in regards to her language (and aren’t we paying for it now. LOL!).
    I always attributed this to the sheer volume of books we used to read together, but also the amount of nursery rhymes we sang.
    It’s something I’m conscious of as our six-month-old daughter starts her foray into the world of words.
    Thanks. This was a wonderful reminder, with a few extra tips to consider.

    • Reply
      April 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      @Kellie, Thanks Kellie. I don’t think you can place too much emphasis on the importance of shared reading and nursery rhymes for language development!

  • Reply
    Communication in children: From 3 – 4 years
    October 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    […] In my last post, I wrote about the development of communication between 2 and 3 years of age. From 2-3 years is a time of rapid growth in communication skills. Expectations of communication at age 3 are vastly different to those at age 2. […]

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    Communication in Children: Development of Speech Sounds: 0-5 years
    November 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    […] Communication in Children: 2-3 years […]

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  • Reply
    March 1, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    My son is 3 year and 2 months old. he spoke some word till the age of 2 year but after that he quits. Now he is humming his rhymes and songs but not speaking even a word. he is not interacting with his peer group. he keeps himself isolate from his age group.
    Kindly suggest us how to encourage him to speak.

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