3- and 4-year-old speech milestones

How many words should your 3- or 4-year-old be able to say? The number might surprise you! 

asian girl sitting in a big chair and holding some solid food in her left hand while trying to tell something
Photo credit: Thinkstock / IvanLonan

Is your little one talking nonstop? At 3 and 4 years old, you can expect your child to go through a chatty stage that's crucial to learning new words and getting comfortable using them.

A good grasp of language allows your child to express their feelings, needs, and wants. As their speech gets more sophisticated and they understand more words, your child will have more tools for thinking, telling stories, and talking with others.

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3- and 4-year-old speech milestones

By age 3, your child will probably have words for almost everything. Usually, their speech is fluid and they can talk easily without repeating words, though they may still mispronounce some. They probably won't have mastered all letter sounds just yet, either, especially blended letters; they may say things like "goo" instead of "glue" or "cack" instead of "quack."

At 3 years old, your child is also beginning to use inflected tones, like raising their voice when asking a question. They'll start to use past tenses – saying they "played" with something if it already happened. They'll also use plurals more skillfully, though they may get many of those wrong (and that's okay at this stage – English grammar is tricky!).

About half of their speech should be understood by new adults, i.e., not parents, grandparents, or other familiar caregivers.

At 2 to 3 years old, kids should also be able to understand a two-part directive, such as "Pick up the paper and bring it to me."

By age 4, kids will talk in sentences using four or five words, though their vocabulary will vary widely. They'll also be able to understand complex questions, and most strangers will be able to understand them.

They'll also have made more progress in pronouncing letter sounds, with only trickier sounds like "gl," "th," "r," and "l" tripping them up. For example, your 4-year-old may still make an "f" or "v" sound instead of the "th," pronouncing "that" like "vat."

They might also start using the present participle "-ing" to say they're "singing" or "running," and will start describing their emotions more often.

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3- and 4-year-old speech checklist

Need to quickly check how your child is doing with their speech milestones? Here's a checklist of skills related to speaking and understanding speech.

  • Speaks in sentences of three or more words
  • Asks simple questions and is able to answer them
  • Knows pronouns like "you" and "me"
  • Begins using different tenses, like adding "-ed" or "-ing" to verbs
  • Uses inflected tones
  • Calls colors, shapes, foods, and other items by name
  • Expresses feelings
  • Knows and understands some spatial concepts like "on" and "next to"
  • Tells stories and explains simple steps or directions

How many words should a 3- and 4-year-old say?

At 3, your child may know anywhere from 500 to 900 words and be able to understand even more. They should also be able to speak in sentences of two to three words.

At 4, your child will probably know at least 1,000 words, understand more complex forms of speech from adults and older kids, and speak in sentences of four to five words.

How to encourage your child's language skills

Helping your child grow their language skills is easier than you might think. Here are some ways to encourage them every day.

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  • Read together. Books help kids add words to their vocabulary, make sense of grammar, and link meanings to pictures.
  • Sing songs and nursery rhymes. Songs and poetry can help your child learn the rhythms of speech.
  • Talk to them… a lot! Talk about their day, their friends, and books you've read and movies you've watched together. Many parents find mealtimes and bedtime are a great opportunity to touch base, even on busy days when it's hard to pause and really listen to your kids.
  • Pause after speaking. This will give your little one a chance to respond to what you say.
  • Expand their vocabulary. When your child says something, introduce new words they may not have used. For instance, if they point to the garden and say, "pretty flowers," you could describe the flowers to them: "Yes, the pink and white roses smell so amazing."
  • Model good speech. It's okay to use baby talk sometimes, but be sure to use the adult words, too. You can say, for example, "It's ba-ba time. I'm going to give your brother his bottle now."

When to talk to a doctor

All children develop at their own pace – especially when it comes to speech. Some speech and language problems, like mispronunciation, lisping, and stuttering, are common for young children as they learn how to talk.

But if your child doesn't talk, says few words, or doesn't seem interested in communicating or expressing their feelings, they may have a speech delay or a speech or language disorder. Talk to your child's pediatrician if you notice these issues:

  • Your 3-year-old doesn't speak in sentences, doesn't understand simple instructions, or has very unclear speech.
  • Your 4-year-old doesn't use "me" and "you" correctly, can't retell their favorite story, doesn't speak clearly, or isn't able to follow a three-part command.
  • Your child distorts consonants and vowels when speaking or moves their mouth in unusual ways when trying to form letter sounds. This may mean there's a physical component to their speech difficulties, meaning their jaw, mouth, or tongue may not move correctly.
  • You think your child might have some hearing loss, especially if they have a history of ear infections paired with pronunciation problems.

Early intervention is critical when your child has a speech, hearing, language, or developmental problem that affects their ability to communicate. In each of these cases, talk with your child's doctor and with their teacher if they're in preschool.

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Their teacher may refer you to an early speech and language intervention program, which is usually coordinated through the county or public school system, to provide a free speech and language screening. Your child's pediatrician can also refer you to a private speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.

Follow your baby's amazing development

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Mayo Clinic Staff. 2021. Childhood apraxia of speech. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Nemours Foundation. 2022. Delayed Speech or Language Development. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Raising Children Network. 2022. Speech (sound) disorders. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Stanford Medicine Children's Health. Undated. Age-Appropriate Speech and Language Milestones. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

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American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is a freelance health and parenting writer from Connecticut, where she lives with a lot of boys (a husband, three sons, and a golden retriever). When she isn't writing, Bradley is usually homeschooling, binge-watching TV shows, and taking care of her many houseplants. She might also be baking a cake.