How Many Words Should My Child Have?
Parents are often asking our speech therapists: How many words should my 2 or 3-year-old toddler say, as well as “when should babies say their first words?” Language development milestones mark the stages of language development for your child. They are both receptive (hearing and understanding) and expressive (speech and what they say). There is always variability, yet there are developmental norms that speech therapists count on to know if a child is developing on track with their speech. Parents should know them as well.
And another great question is, what do you count as a “word”?
Speech therapists, and you parents, can count the following as “words:
- Single simple words like “doggie” or “papa”
- Word approximations (e.g. “dah” for dog or “ba” for “ball”)
- Word chunks like “bye-bye” or “gimme” (for “give me”) count as 1 word
What is most important if you are observing which words to count for your child is the following:
- Consistency – Is your child using these words often or regularly? A word your child said at the zoo once a week ago (e.g., zebra) would not necessarily count, but one that they use every day (e.g., cup, bath, grandma) do count as being used consistently.
- Independence – Is your child using the word or words they know independently and on their own. We can’t count words you ask your child to say as being ones they use on their own. For example, if you tell your child “say puppy” and they say it, that would not count. It needs to to be a word they use of their own accord.
- Intentionality – Are the words they are saying being used in the right context? Do they know the meaning and are using them to stand for the right purpose? This is why we count “moo” for a cow sound as a word; because the child is using the sound to stand for something meaningful.
If you are curious about which first words a child might say, here is a very brief list of examples:
- Social Words – To Communicate with Other People – more, please, thank you, hi/hello, bye-bye
- Action Words (Verbs) – eat, drink, go, stop, run, jump, walk
- Place/Location Words – Where is Something/Someone? – up, down, in, out
- Words to Describe Things (Adjectives) – big, little, hot, cold, loud, quiet, yucky, icky
- Early Pronouns – me, mine, my, I, you, it
- Common Nouns (More important are names of things in the child’s environment) – ball, book, truck, baby, bowl, spoon, diaper, sock, shoe, shirt
Differences in Language Development are Normal, but Parents Should Trust Their Gut
There are many differences in how children develop and we cannot compare them exactly to each other, but parents should pay attention to a general developmental trajectory with regards to speech and language.
So to help parents track their toddler’s speech and language progress, we’ve listed some of the typical language milestones to look for at each age. Parents need to trust their gut. If they believe that their child isn’t developing at a typical pace, it may be worthwhile to contact your pediatrician or a speech pathologist for a screening of and evaluation of your child.
DOWNLOAD: A Free Checklist for Birth to Age 5 Language Milestones
1-Year-Old Language Development Milestones
Your kid is just now starting to communicate more than just crying. At this age, your child should be able to:
Say a Few Words: The best way to help your little one learn more words is by reading and talking to them every day. The prescription from the speech therapists at Therapy Works Together is at least 20 minutes a day. There are the basic words that a child should say like mama and dada. They should also be using these words in the correct context.
Watch this 18 month old child saying several single words:
Imitate your Voice: Babies are always trying to find their voice, so it’s no surprise that they babble constantly. Early babbling occurs between 8-12 months of age and continues into word formation around 12 months. There should be a variety of vowel and consonant sounds as well.
Respond To You: Your growing child’s receptive language skills are also very important right now. They should recognize your voice, laugh when others do and point or look at what they want as well as looking at you. These communication actions are very important in your child’s overall communication development.
Can They Follow a Simple Direction? Another important receptive language skill and one that speech therapists are always asking about is whether your child can follow directions. This tells us they understand what you are telling them. For example, will they give you a toy when you ask for it?
2-Year-Old Language Development Milestones
As your child grows so should the amount and variety of words they are using. They are also starting to put together very short phrases.
Growing vocabulary. Around 24 months of age, your child should be using approximately 50 words regularly. For example: more, milk, and car. There is a real boost in vocabulary at this age and you may be noticing them adding to their vocabulary every day another word or two.
Put Words Together: This is the start of a short sentence production and at age two your child should start putting together very simple short sentences. For example, your child might say: “more juice,” or “car go.” With regards to their speech skills, it’s not something parents need to be very concerned about. Only about 50 percent of what a kid says will be completely intelligible.
Improving Receptive Language: By now, your child should be able to point to pictures in books you read regularly or go get you toys they use. For example, “where is the ball?” They can also point to different common body parts when you ask them to (e.g., nose, head)
Identify objects and body parts. Your child should be able to point to their nose, eyes, mouth, and so forth, and start saying each body part, although many children will point well before they can verbalize it. Your little one can also point to pictures of the correct objects when prompted with “Where is the ball?” or “Show me the dog.”
3-Year-Old Language Development Milestones
There is a lot of talk happening now with your child. And their vocabulary use, variety of words and sentence length is increasing.
Longer phrases and sentences: It is really incredible to see your little child growing up and having so much to say. At age 3 they are saying sentences that are longer and at around 3-6 words. For example, they might say, “doggie is running, “ or “ball fall down.” The grammar may be simple but the sentence structure is correct and all of the needed parts of the sentence are there.
The Right Word. There is less pointing now and more using the right word for the right thing. They should have a word for almost everything in their day to day life and be able to ask for it from a parent or caregiver.
Follow two-part Directives. You can give your child longer and slightly more complex directions that they can understand. And your child should follow them correctly (except for when they are being toddler and not listening to anything you say at all!). For example, typical commands your child might be able to follow are: ” take off your jacket and put it in your room.” If the context is new, your child might have some trouble with directions. But if these are instructions within an everyday routine, they should be able to follow them.
4-Year-Old Language Development Milestones
This is when you have a big kid that can do many things all on their own. They won’t have any trouble telling you that they want to be independent. Their language skills are very impressive and you can ask them about their day.
Complex Sentences and Ideas. Your preschool child can tell you long stories and all of the amazing things that are happening at school. You can understand what they are saying and so should people that are not in their life every day like someone at the store or grandparent.
Concepts are OK. Your child should be able to identify and name at least some colors, shapes, and letters. They can understand who, what, when, where questions. You can start improving their early literacy skills by pointing out words, asking them where a book starts and pointing to words as you read.
Time is Getting Clearer. They cannot tell time but they should know the general order of things throughout their day. They will know that lunch is after school ends and bath time is in the evening. They like consistency and this helps them learn that there is an order and structure to their day.
Complex Commands. At the age of 4, your preschool child should be able to follow three- or four-step commands, like “brush your teeth, pick a book and come here to read.” They can tell you exactly what they want and often do. For example, they will tell you they want, “some cake for dessert and to watch a show on TV.”
Don’t Ignore a Speech Delay
Speech pathologists are always on the lookout for issues with receptive language and overall communication skills. We want to know if your child understands and if they are using other important communication skills like pointing, making eye contact, using whatever language skills they have appropriately as well as meeting other developmental milestones.
MORE INFORMATION: Parents Can Improve a Child’s Language Skills at Home with 5 Tips
If you think your child might be a late talker or not meeting language developmental milestones it is worthwhile speaking with your pediatrician or getting your child screened for their speech or language skills. This is important because if your child is not able to communicate their needs, they may be getting frustrated.
So if your child can’t follow instructions or doesn’t seem to understand what you’re saying, they may have a speech delay or be a late talker. You can find more information on what a speech delay is here and consider speaking with a speech therapist.
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