Preschool is a time of rapid development, especially in language. Between the ages of 3 and 5, children make great strides in both expressive (spoken) and receptive (heard) language. They also develop a larger and richer vocabulary, and their sentence structure improves significantly. Preschoolers are mastering linguistic concepts quickly and are using language to express their wants, needs, and often, their dislikes.
Expressive Language in 3-Year-Olds
A typical 3-year-old has 900 to 1,000 words and is constructing three-word sentences. The words they use will be names of familiar objects, body parts, and feelings, according to Education.com. They are beginning to understand tenses, plurals and other word structures. They understand that putting ‘ed’ at the end of a word signifies the past tense, but they may not realize that there are exceptions to this rule, so they may say, "We goed swimming," instead of "We went swimming." Preschoolers are beginning to use pronouns correctly, referring to themselves as ‘I’ even though you refer to your child as "you." They may have trouble with using the correct pronoun, however, saying, “Him is not playing nice,” instead of “He is not playing nice.” They are also building their repertoire of prepositions, using words like "under," "in," and "on."
Expressive Language in 4- and 5-Year-Olds
A typical 4-year old has 4,000 to 6,000 words and uses sentences of five or six words, as well as past tense, plurals and pronouns, according to Education.com. A 5-year-old will usually have 5,000 to 8,000 words, use longer sentences, and may self-correct when using the wrong word or tense. For example, a 5-year-old might say, “We go…we went to the beach yesterday,” indicating that he knows the correct formation of the past tense and was aware that he did not use it initially. A preschooler should be able to construct a sentence as needed or in response to a question. The Structured Photographic Expressive Language Test-Preschool 2, or SPELT-P2, is used by speech language pathologists to measure language development, according to Janelle Publications. This test evaluates preschoolers on using structures such as prepositions, articles, plurals, possessives, nouns and pronouns, past tenses, negatives, conjoined phrases and clauses. This test is given to children ages 3 to 5, and scores are based on the child’s chronological age.
Receptive Language in 3-Year-Olds
The ability to follow directions is an indicator of receptive language in preschoolers. Since they have more receptive language than expressive language at this age, they can understand more than they can say. A 3-year-old should be able to follow directions that are slightly more complex than the sentences they can speak. For example, if your child can say, “I want more milk,” he should be able to understand, “Bring me your cup and put it on the table.”
Receptive Language in 4- and 5-Year-Olds
Older preschoolers can understand more complex sentences and directions, but just because they understand your directions doesn’t mean they will follow them. If you think your child is having trouble understanding what you are asking, it may simply be that he is trying to assert his independence. Recalling sentences is another good measure of receptive language. A preschool child should be able to recall sentences slightly longer than those they typically use.