Preschool Speech and Language | How should my 3-year-old be talking, understanding, and playing?

One of the most common questions other parents ask me is, “What should my __ year-old be able to say by now?”

For most parents, it really is hard to know what to expect! Those of us sitting at the playground or the doctor's office waiting room watching and listening to our children may see such a wide variation from one child to the next.

One little chatterbox may be spouting out full-on sentences using mature, varied vocabulary while another little fella may speak much less.

As parents, we’re always thinking, “What is average? And...should I be worried?” To answer this question it’s best to compare one age group at a time.

So I thought I would put together a “What to Expect” for 3-year-olds (36-48 months). Read on to learn more about how your 3-year-old should be talking, understanding, and playing!

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What your child should be saying

When considering what a child says, there are two things to be thinking about. One is the "speech" part - which are the actual sounds that your child pronounces (or doesn't!). Then there's the "language" part. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) call this speaking part of communication “expressive language.”

Expressive language is the ability to put thoughts and words into sentences to communicate in a way that makes sense to others and is grammatically accurate.

Ready for some practical things to look for in your 3 year old’s speech and language? Here we go!

Uses a lot of 4+ word sentences - Most 3 year olds know hundreds and hundreds of words. By this age, they are putting these words into sentences that are often 4 or more words long. “Let’s go play outside” “Can I have a cookie” and “You be the bad guy and I will be the police” are examples of what you should be hearing from your little lady or man!

Speech is mostly understandable - Most strangers should be able to understand a 3 year old. Of course sometimes your child may not speak loud enough or confuse the order of words in a sentence from time to time, but if an unfamiliar listener truly can’t understand your little one’s speech and they are between 3 and 4 years old, it’s worth having an SLP screen or evaluate your child. Some speech sound errors are “developmental,” which means that they are common and usually outgrown. But some errors are not typical and usually require therapy to remediate.

Tells the use of common objects - Your 3-year-old should be able to tell you what a common object is used for. She should tell you that you use a spoon to eat, or that you use a chair to sit on. When my own daughter was a fairy-tale obsessed 3 year old, she told me one day,

“I’m a princess and this is my magic wand. It works! And it can spell you into a princess. Wanna be Sleeping Beauty?”

At 3 years and 5 months, she could definitely explain the use of an object!

Uses several pronouns such as “him “she” “you” and “they” to refer to others - Don’t worry too much if they make some pronoun mistakes at this age, but should start to use a variety including the above mentioned words.

Uses some plurals (“horses”) - Children begin to learn those pesky English grammar rules by the age of 3. Typically developing children will be putting an ‘s’ or ‘es’ at the end of their words to talk about more than one! At three, however, if he still says “mouses” instead of “mice,” just casually model the correct word (“Oh those mice are very cute”) and enjoy the cuteness while it lasts!


Names 3-5 colors - Your child will undoubtedly have a preference for certain colors by now - and should to be able to name them for you. 

Answers simple “why” questions - A 3-year-old’s brain has been developing its logical capability. He is grasping an understanding of cause and effect and the way the world works around him. Try asking him, “Why does a bird have wings?” Even if he doesn’t know the exact answer, he should be learning that the answer to “why” questions usually start with words such as “because,” “so that,” “to…”

Gives personal information like his/her age and names of siblings ... and possibly her entire life story to the grocery store checkout guy. Yep, been there!

Talks about events/activities that happened away from home - This is an important one! Three year-olds are often away from home for at least part of their day.

Whether it be at day care, preschool, mother’s day out, or Sunday school, we as parents want our kids to be able to tell us the good and the bad about what happened in their life when we aren’t there with them!

Most parents think only of the talking aspect when they hear about speech therapy. However, talking is only part of communicating. How we process words, understand their meaning, and know how to use them is also a key part of successful communication.

Next up we’ll review, “receptive language,” or understanding.


What your child should be understanding

This area is what we speech people call “receptive language.”

Receptive language skills involve understanding the words, sentences, and meaning in what is said or read to a person.

Since communication is more than “talking,” let’s have a look at the particular language skills that a 3 year old (36-48 months) should possess.

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Understands directional words such as “under” “top” and “front” - Comprehension of “basic concepts” like these ensures that a child can follow directions - essential for home and classroom activities.

Answers simple questions about main events (“wh” questions) - Again, I feel this point is so important to be able to find out what is going on with your child when they are not with you!

Answers and asks simple three to five word questions that start with “how” and “when” - At my house, we hear a lot of “How can I get this open?” and “When can I have a snack?” 

Points to 4-7 colors - “Show me the pink one! Which one is yellow?” An easy task to work on and have fun with - colors are everywhere!

Understands quantity concepts such as “less” and “more”

Points to basic shapes like “circle” and “square” - By 3 years of age, a child will probably have learned these from cartoons, books, puzzles and games, or at daycare or preschool.

Hearing should also be professionally tested as your child could have a selective hearing loss which might not be noticed by family. Frequent ear infections (Otitis Media) can have an impact on hearing, understanding, and speech. A good SLP will always ask about this during assessment.


How your child should be playing

Lastly, it’s a good idea to take note of how your child is playing and using his or her speech and language skills with peers and adults.

Social communication (pragmatics) refers to the way a person uses communication in social situations.

We all need strong pragmatic skills to be able to build relationships with others. Children will also be required to use them in academic settings when working in groups and communicating with peers. For most 3 year olds, however, pragmatic skills will be used primarily in play situations.

Your 3 year old (36-48 months) should:

  • Join other children in cooperative play groups and interact with others

  • Engage in two-way conversations

  • Participate in exchanges of 3 or more turns


Questions? Concerns?

If this article brought up any questions or highlights any concerns you might have, contact Montgomery Speech Therapy for a free consultation today! The sooner a speech and language delay or impairment is identified and treated, the sooner your child can overcome those challenges and be on his or her way to academic and social success.


At Montgomery Speech Therapy (MST), we offer play-based and family-centered speech therapy for children - from toddlers to teenagers. With individual therapy sessions from our home studio or your child’s home or school setting, our aim is to provide fun, motivating activities that drive your child toward becoming a confident and effective communicator.

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