Communication in children: From 3 – 4 years

Guest Post — Julie Miller (Speech Pathologist) from The Useful Box

Communication in children: From 3 – 4 years

communication in children aged 3 to 4 years of age

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.

Though the leap from 3-4 years is more subtle, it is no less significant. From 3-4 years, children continue to hone their communication skills. They are continuing down the continuum toward the abstract and literate language that will be required of them in their school years. From 3-4 years language is becoming increasingly complex with extended sentence length, an increase in use and ability to answer questions and an increasing ability to talk about past and future events rather than only about the “here and now”.

Below are the expectations for communication development in an average 3 year old and 4 year old:

Average communication development: 3- 4 years

At 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 (if you are still counting!)
  • 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.
  • Talking mostly about the “here” and “now”. They may have difficulty talking about past or future events or abstract concepts (e.g. emotions, reasons, causes)

At 4 years most children:

  • Comprehend (though not always follow!) 2 and 3 step commands (e.g. Finish brushing your teeth, then get your bag and come out to the car).
  • Use 1500-1600 words
  • Ask LOTS of questions
  • Use longer and more complex sentences (e.g. including regular use of “and”, “but”, “because” – “I am sad because Thomas hit me”)
  • Begin to use …who… and …that… sentences (e.g. “The man who was wearing a red hat, got on the train”; “The hat that was red flew out the window”)
  • Use describing words regularly (e.g. fast, hungry, happy)
  • Still make some grammar errors (e.g. irregular plurals “foots”, “sheeps” or irregular past tense “runned”, “goed”)
    • Recount stories and recent events
    • Understand most questions (may struggle with “how” or “why”)
    • Begin to talk about simple emotions (sad, happy, angry, embarrassed) and reasons (I feel sad because Sarah pushed me over).
    • Make simple predictions (“What will happen next?”)

After reading these checklists, you may have concerns about your child’s language development. If you have any concerns 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.

Apart from seeking professional help if required, there are simple things we can be doing to help our children develop their language skills between 3 and 4 years of age.

Promoting language development: 3 – 4 years

1) Talk, listen, play

Allocate some time each day to spend with your child. Allow your child to determine the focus of play and conversation. Listen to your child’s speech. Comment on what your child is doing. Avoid asking questions or giving instructions. Look for opportunities to model specific language structures as required (see below).

2) Read with your child daily

Introduce your child to more complex (but meaningful) language by sharing books. Don’t be scared of complex language at this stage of development. Choose books that have a mixture of simple and complex sentences, new concepts, some abstract ideas and/or talk about emotions.

Use books to probe more complex language skills. Stop at the end of a page and ask your child; “What might happen next?”, “What is the problem?”, “What could they do?”, “How does the boy feel?” or relate the story to real-life experiences; “Has that ever happened to you?”, “What makes you feel happy?”…

3) Simplify/ Modify your language

I have mentioned “simplifying your language” in previous posts. Perhaps at this stage of language development, it could more correctly be termed “modifying your language”.

When communicating with a 3-year-old, you are likely to be modelling expanded and increasingly complex sentences

e.g. Child says: “You brush my hair mummy”

       Parent says: “I’ll brush your hair so it won’t get too messy


       Child says: “That man has black shoes”

       Parent says: “The man who is sitting at the bus stop has black shoes”

4) Model specific vocabulary or grammar

Modelling is about altering 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 drawed a picture for you”

     Parent says “Oh, you drew a picture, thanks!”

b)  Child says: “Let’s go in a camping house”.

     Parent says “Do you want to stay in a tent?” (with emphasis on “tent”).

Modelling does not involve asking your child to say the sentence again or “drilling” the error. Provide the correct model, with emphasis, and then move on in the conversation. 

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

All these areas 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).

For more information on communication in babies (0-1 year), children (1-2 years) and children (2-3 years) see my previous guest posts:

Baby Communication: Newborn to 1

Communication in Children: 12 months to 24 months

Communication in Children: 2-3 years

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. 

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
    Kelly Be A Fun Mum
    October 3, 2011 at 7:56 am

    Julie, once again, thank you for sharing your expertise in such an easy to understand and useful way. I love using questions at the end of books but have forgotten to incorporate this into our reading time. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Reply
      October 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks again for having me Kelly. Asking questions before, during and after books adds so much to shared reading doesn’t it?

  • Reply
    October 3, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    very well written…very informative…

    • Reply
      October 3, 2011 at 6:57 pm

      Thanks. Glad it was helpful.

  • Reply
    Laney @ Crash Test Mummy
    October 3, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    I found this really interesting. Seems like my talkative 3 1/2 year old is doing pretty well. She can be difficult to understand sometimes. I’d be interested in learning more about common mispronunciations eg t instead of c take instead of cake.

    • Reply
      October 4, 2011 at 9:59 am

      Thanks Laney. I think I might break from the general age-based communication posts next time to talk more specifically about sound errors and other common speech difficulties. (If that is okay with Kelly of course!)

      • Reply
        Laney @ Crash Test Mummy
        October 4, 2011 at 10:12 am

        That would be great. I’m not sure if I should worry or not. Kinder teacher doesn’t think so, but would be nice to be better informed.

      • Reply
        Kelly Be A Fun Mum
        October 4, 2011 at 10:14 am

        Of course! That sounds great Julie!

  • Reply
    October 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I think that would be great too – My 4 year old is meeting all the criteria you put up but I did wonder about whether a couple of sound errors were still ok at this point too.

    • Reply
      October 6, 2011 at 8:27 am

      Hi Libby – will get to work on it!

      • Reply
        October 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm

        Thanks 🙂

  • Reply
    Shavaune Herbert
    February 9, 2013 at 7:16 am

    Hi, my son is 4.5 years of age, he is struggling quite a lot at school with blending words, he says s down his nose and finds it distressing saying this letter, his teacher has expressed concerns about his develomment and says he seems lost with his peers! He finds it very hard to answer simple questions when with a big group, take him away from this and He is a lot more comfortable!, I need your advice, could his speech be the reason behind his delayed development to sound his words?

    Kind regards

  • Reply
    tracey death
    April 20, 2013 at 3:33 am

    hi, my 4 year old caitlin’s teacher has expressed concerns about her speech production as she does string words but its hard to understand and we don’t want her to get frustated.

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