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Speech at three years old

Is my child talking properly? What should he be able to say? Why does he sometimes ignore me? Why does he say some words all wrong?

When your child, or grandchild, or nephew or niece is about three years old, you're likely to ask these questions. You'll want to make sure that he/she is keeping up with learning to talk. In most cases, they're doing just fine, and it helps to know what to expect.

There's such a difference between children at this time. You want the best for them, especially if they're just stepping off into the pre-school world. So here's an update of what you might find a turning-three child can do, and a few ideas on how to help them move on to more mature speech.

Listening and attending
At this age, children watch and listen to the things going on around them, and show a knowledgeable interest in what they hear and see. They say 'what's that?' and point things out to you, and won't let you go before you respond to them.

Then, another time, they're so busy with their own play that they ignore you. That's not because they can't understand and definitely not because they're being naughty. It's simply that they can only concentrate on one thing at a time. If you call their name, and wait until they look at you, you'll find they respond much better.

Pretend play
Your child's likely to love playing with teddies, farm animals and dolls. He'll like to give teddy his tea, give him a bath and put him to bed. These are wonderful opportunities for you to join in with him, talking about what's going on.

At three, your child will begin to understand sentences that have three or more important or 'key' words in them. For example, 'Let's give teddy a drink and biscuit,' during a toys' tea party. But he'll be confused by long sentences. You can help him by breaking a long sentence into shorter lengths.

'Go upstairs and get Daddy's keys from his desk,' is complicated. Instead, try,
'Come upstairs,' (go up with child)
'Go to Daddy's desk' (wait while he goes)
'Find Daddy's keys.'

He's much more likely to be able to do this and he'll be thrilled by his success.

Child's own speech

Always remember: the amount a child says lags behind the amount he understands. He may understand three key words, but he's more likely to use one or two himself. He'll maybe also miss out all the little words, and get the word ending wrong. 'Wented' instead of went: or even 'goed'.

Enjoy those mistakes, as they're really a sign that he's learning the rules of language. He's recognised the 'ed' ending, but isn't quite sure how to use it yet.

He'll probably have many words by now, 150-200 or more, and will be putting them together into short phrases.

If he's not putting many words together, you can help by shortening your own sentences, so that you know he can understand them. This will help him learn quickly.

You might hear him using speech to guide his own play, talking about what he is doing in a sort of running commentary. Remember, don't worry about any mistakes in grammar, or pronunciation. Just say the word or phrase yourself, correctly.
If he says, 'We goed to the park', just say,

'Yes, we went to the park.' He'll soon get the idea. This is called 'modelling' and it's a great way to help him.

You'll hear him make lots of speech mistakes especially in words with 2-3 consonants together. Words like 'snake', 'train' and 'watch' have difficult combinations of sounds. It's quite normal for him to take time to get them right.

If you're worried about your child's speech, the best person to advise you is a speech and language therapist. Contact your health visitor or GP or find the details of your local therapy department and give them a ring.

Things to do with your three-year old

Play with him every day.

Make sure you have quiet times together for play: turn off the television.

Enjoy pretend play with doll's houses, farms, teddies.

Let him hear the correct version of what he says, but don't make him repeat things.

Use simple language and short phrases to help him understand.

Don't worry about numbers, the alphabet or reading yet. Playing and talking will help his learning more than anything else.

Answer as many of his questions as you can.

When to get advice from a speech and language therapist

If your child appears not to understand even when you use very short phrases, and you know he is listening to you.

If he only has a few single words.

If he reaches three and a quarter without starting to put two words together.

If he uses only two or three different sounds, and his speech is impossible to understand.

If you think he's getting frustrated.

If he avoids meeting your eyes and seems to always live in his own world.