For three-, four-, and five-year-olds, it is a time of immense growth in language. Vocabulary is expanding, and the semantic and syntactic structure of their language is becoming more complex. This change in language represents the development of cognitive abilities. Children are becoming more complex thinkers and, as they grow, these changes are reflected in their language. Three-, four-, and five-year-olds are curious about language and increasingly rely on language to make their wants and needs known.
Three-year-olds have acquired about 900 to 1,000 words and about 90% of what they say is intelligible. They easily can produce three-word sentences. Language becomes the primary mechanism for making their needs, feelings, and thoughts known to others. Three-year-olds begin to understand and respond to a wide variety of questions, such as “What are you doing?” and “Why are you doing that?”
Three-year-olds also ask a lot of questions. Casey asked his mom where the ducks get their food. She responded that they get their food from people feeding them at the pond. Casey continued the conversation by asking why did the people feed the ducks. His mom said people like to make sure that the ducks have food and it is fun to watch. Casey continued to ask why do the people like to watch the ducks eat. For each response his mom gave, Casey asked another “Why” question. Three-year-olds like to talk and engage in conversation more for the act of talking than gaining information. They like to talk and they like the others to hear them.
Three-year-olds are beginning to use well-formed sentences that follow grammar rules. They are beginning to use the pronouns I, you, and me correctly. They also know at least three prepositions, usually in, on, and under (Clark, 1978). However, they still have difficulty understanding and producing negative sentences. Nancy announced that, “I no go to grandma’s house.” When her mom modeled a correction and said, “Nancy, you don’t want to go to grandma’s house, “she replied, “I don’t not want to go.” This confusion with the use of negatives is common among three-year-olds.
At four years of age, children’s language development is exploding. Their vocabulary consists of about 4,000 to 6,000 words, and they are typically speaking in five- to six-word sentences. They use language to communicate their thoughts, needs, and demands. However, sometimes they try to communicate more than their vocabulary allows them and extend words to create new meaning (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In telling his teacher about their trip to the grocery store, Matthew explains, “We goed to the store and got some food for dinner. We piled all of our food into a baby carriage, oh, I mean cart. I always get them confused.” Matthew’s use of “goed” instead of “went” is a typical error of overextension of language rules used by four-year-olds. Four-year-olds are learning rules for verb tense, plurals, and pronouns. However, they have not yet incorporated the exceptions to these rules into their language, so “went” is “goed,” “kept” is “keeped,” and “children” is “childs.”
Matthew’s confusion with words, using “baby carriage” instead of “cart,” is a common error for four-year-olds. They are learning so many new words at this time that there is a frequent misuse of words and mislabeling of objects. Often words that sound the same can be mistaken for each other. Alice said that her father just bought a new blue kayak to go to work. Alice confused the word “kayak” with “Cadillac” and therefore made it appear that her father bought a boat instead of a car.
Talking is a favorite activity of four-year-olds. They talk while they are playing, frequently describing what they are doing while playing (Howard, Shaughnessy, Sanger, & Hux, 1998). They want to share with you their experiences, from how they got up from bed in the morning to how they brush their teeth to what their dog ate for breakfast. Taking turns in conversation is difficult. They want to talk and be heard but have difficulty listening to others talk. At this age, some children talk incessantly, and teachers need to help these children learn to regulate their talking to allow others opportunities to speak.
As mentioned in the section on emotional development, “bathroom” talk is a common part of four-year-olds’ language. Four-year-olds are pushing the boundaries of their language and are learning what words are socially acceptable and what words are not. Four-year-old Liz yells to her friend, “Nanny, nanny, poo, poo. You can’t get me!” Liz is discovering new ways to express herself. Teachers need to help children understand that there are more appropriate ways to express themselves than through “bathroom” talk.
Five-year-olds’ language continues to grow, and their vocabularies are expanding to 5,000 to 8,000 words. The number of words in sentences is increasing, and sentence structure is becoming more complex. As a result of adult feedback, five-year-olds begin decreasing their use of overextensions of rules for verbs and plurals, frequently correcting their own errors. Remarking about his trip to the beach, Seth said, “I put my foots, I mean feet, in the water, and it was cold.” Five-year-olds are also using pronouns correctly. Seth used “I” to identify himself instead of using his name or the pronoun “you,” which is used by others to identify him.
Five-year-olds become increasingly more sophisticated in their ability to communicate their ideas and feelings with words (Ninio & Snow, 1996). Asking what happened in school can be answered with elaborate stories ranging from what they had for a snack to who spilled the paint all over the floor. As five-year-olds’ language becomes more complex, they often misuse words in a humorous way. Bryan told his mother that he was afraid to go to the doctor because he heard that he would get a shot with an arrow. He thought it would really hurt.
Five-year-olds also enjoy talking. They are also learning the conventions of conversation and are interrupting less frequently, learning to take turns, and listening to others while they speak. At this age, children enjoy using language to act out plays and stories. Through this, they show their skills of using conventional modes of communication, complete with pitch and inflection. A group of five-year-olds can perform the “Three Little Pigs” complete with songs and voice changes to imitate the various characters. Opportunities such as “show and tell” allow the children to talk in front of a group for a limited amount of time and use language to express themselves.
“Bathroom talk” is still a big part of five-year-olds’ playfulness with language. However, they are learning to control its use so that they are not caught using it by an adult. They are also fascinated with big words not typically found in their everyday vocabulary, such as “Stegosaurus” and “tarantula.” It is not uncommon for five-year-olds to learn the difficult vocabulary words that are associated with things that they are interested in, such as knowing Tyrannosaurus Rex if they are interested in dinosaurs or knowing all the names of Pokeman characters.
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