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Language Development in Preschoolers

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on May 1, 2014

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.”

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