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Back to basics
Language development


Successful communication relies on the ability to use verbal and nonverbal cues to understand and express thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

There are two kinds of language skills: expressive (talking and gesturing) and receptive (hearing and perceiving). In typically developing children, these skills grow through opportunities to listen, respond, and interact with adults and other children. Of course, if you observe a language delay, speak with the child’s family. Evaluation by language specialists, including a physician, an audiologist, or an early childhood interventionist may be warranted.

Consider the following typical skills as you plan for the children in your care.


Communicate through body language, eye contact, and vocalizing (like crying) their needs.
Rely on you and others to interpret their signals—cries, coos, smiles, and babbles.
Imitate sounds—first vowel sounds like /a/, /o/, and /i/, and later consonant sounds like /m/, /d/, and /t/—and vocal tone.
Coordinate looking, vocalizing, and moving when interacting with a familiar adult. This coordination is the first step in what will later be the give-and-take of verbal conversation.
Respond to the tone of the speaker’s voice—by startling, feeling fearful, relaxing, or settling down to easy interaction.
Focus when their names are called by looking for the speaker.
Enjoy songs, rhymes, and music and begin to move to musical stimulation.
Begin to associate specific gestures with particular needs. American Sign Language (ASL) is sometimes used with infants who aren’t yet able to communicate their desires and emotions verbally.


Are frequently frustrated when they attempt to communicate with gestures or vocalizations but aren’t understood.
Follow simple, two-part instructions like, “Bring the ball to me,” or “Look for the truck.”
Respond to simple questions with “Yes” or “No” accompanied by head movements.
Have fun saying “No” and need you to understand that it’s not a sign of negativity or stubbornness but instead an important expression of developing independence and autonomy.
Speak 50 to 300 different words by age 2. Vocabulary includes some descriptive words for feelings, thoughts, and desires. By age 3 a toddler uses simple sentences, often with just a noun and verb (“Doggie jump”).
Rely on adults to fill in the blanks of their telegraphic speech. For example, when a toddler points and says, “Truck comes,” you might reply, “Yes, the red garbage truck is coming up the street” to expand vocabulary and model proper syntax.
Enjoy and follow stories with simple concepts and clear, realistic pictures that they can point to and describe.
Need endless opportunities for conversation with adults to build vocabulary and concepts that explain the small classroom environment and the wider world.


Speak in complete sentences of varying complexity.
Can give and follow three-part directions.
Talk of happenings in the past and the future but often confuse the words tomorrow and yesterday.
Understand the meanings of more than 1,000 words and speak between 800 and 900.
Can recognize and reproduce the forms of some letters and associate the related sounds.
Recognize several printed words and often enjoy writing their own names.
Spend a lot of time talking to themselves—about activities, sequences, and directions. Sometimes this self-talk is critical, repeating adult corrections and sometimes self-congratulatory, repeating encouragements.
Fluidly and accurately use pronouns.
Enjoy the mouth play and cognitive flexibility of adding new, unfamiliar words to their vocabulary.
Relish stories with elements of humor, fantasy, and problem-solving. They can remember parts of the story and often retell it with dolls, puppets, or their friends.


Can pronounce and use most language sounds. Some children have difficulty pronouncing /sh/, /l/, /th/, and /r/ until the age of 6 or later.
Share elaborate stories—real and fantasy—in complex sentences of up to 10 words.
Sometimes use unacceptable vocabulary—exploring powerful words that guarantee a swift adult response.
Use speech that is almost entirely intelligible though not always accurate.
Use visual (what they see) and auditory (what they hear) symbols to begin learning to read.
Often err when trying to integrate sounds with written symbols. Letter and word reversals are common.
Continue to expand vocabulary, explore complex sentence constructions, and formulate questions about the natural world and relationships among people.
Relish jokes that involve word play (like the Knock Knock joke that ends “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana”).
Creatively explore and devise word play and games with rhymes, definitions, sequences, and puzzles.
Need daily opportunities to be read to—even as they build the skill to read to themselves. Read-aloud sessions reinforce the richness of the written word and make children more likely to recognize books as a source of adventure—both real and imagined.