As parents, every new language skill our kids hone in on over the years can feel like a big accomplishment — and for good reason, because it is!
But have you ever wondered if your young child’s vocabulary is especially expansive for her age, or if it’s normal that she repeats new words almost instantly? If so, you might have a verbally advanced learner on your hands.
“Generally, these children move through the process of gaining and understanding speech much more rapidly than others,” says Sally Reis, Ph.D., vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut and past president of the National Association for Gifted Children.
Of course, every child develops skills at different ages and speeds. Sometimes, children are quick to develop language skills, but their gross motor skills like walking develop at a slower pace (and over time, those might switch), says Jann Fujimoto, MS, CCC-SLP, a certified speech-language pathologist in Oconomowoc, WI. “Just because children are advanced at one age doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll continue that trajectory,” she says. “Likewise, if you’re thinking, ‘My kid is just on target right now,’ that doesn’t mean your child won’t advance later on.”
The following language development milestones can help you determine if your young child is verbally advanced for her age. But no matter what level she’s at, the most important thing is to constantly expose her to a rich language environment — this will help expand her vocabulary, knowledge of the world, and love of learning.
6-9 Months: He speaks his first word.
Most children say their first words around one year of age, but verbally advanced children might utter words like “Dada” or “no” even earlier. “Some very verbally precocious kids speak their first words at six to nine months of age,” says Reis. “And before that, they’re trying to communicate, even if they can’t speak yet.” For instance, you may notice your baby is attempting to mimic your mouth movements or sticking his tongue out.
To encourage those first sounds, make sure your baby hears words through many different mediums. “Try to broaden the language experience in multiple ways by singing to them, reading to them, or showing them objects and saying the corresponding words,” says Reis. The more words your child hears, the better he’ll be primed for speaking.
Book Pick: “More, More, More,” Said the Baby. This bright board book about children and the grownups who love them will delight your baby and expose him to more, more, and more new words! Repetition and simple stanzas teach young learners the fundamental elements of the English language.
1 year: She can say short sentences.
It may be as simple as “I goed home,” but when a 1-year-old strings together words to create meaning, it’s a sign of verbal advancement, says Fujimoto. “The sentences may not be grammatically correct, but that’s OK because that can come later,” she says. It’s still advanced — at this age, most children link around two words at once (such as “Hi, Mama” or “more milk”).
If your 1-year-old is starting to form short sentences, Fujimoto recommends adding one more descriptive word to each statement she makes. For instance, you can respond to “I want apple!” by saying, “Oh, you want more apples!” or “You want a red apple.” This shows her the many ways we use language to speak descriptively.
Book Pick: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? As you read this beloved classic and point to striking illustrations of animals like a red bird, a yellow duck, and a green frog, your child will learn the vivid adjectives that color our world.
2 years: He can say sentences with multiple verbs.
While most children at age 2 are experimenting with onomatopoeia (words that describe noises, like “beep beep!”) and starting to ask questions (“Where’s Dada?”), a more advanced child might already be speaking in longer sentences with many verbs, such as, “I played and I jumped and I sang!” says Fujimoto.
By age 2, he may have also already grasped when speech is meant to be funny. “Advanced children like the subtleties of language and see the humor in it at a young age,” says Reis. “If you read a line from a book that’s funny, they’ll laugh.”
It’s appropriate to begin subtly correcting mistakes in irregular verbs at this age. For instance, when your child says, “I goed night-night,” you might say, “Oh, you went night-night!” “They don’t need to repeat it or say it correctly at that very moment, but it can provide a model for the next time,” says Fujimoto. You can also try this with irregular nouns — for instance, by using the word “geese” when your child says “gooses.”
Book Pick: The Wonky Donkey. Humor-loving kids will be in fits of laughter during this read-aloud tale about a spunky, hanky panky, cranky, stinky, dinky, lanky, honky tonky, winky wonky donkey! This lovable story also demonstrates how to correctly use past-tense verbs such as “saw,” “smelt,” and “had.”
3 years: She may show interest in nonfiction books.
Some advanced children show a fascination in books about factual places and events as young as age 3. “As some of these verbally precocious kids get a little older, they might show natural curiosity and a thirst for information, and oftentimes will demonstrate a preference for nonfiction or informational text,” says Reis. Your child may also correctly use many irregular verbs and nouns at this age.
Take this time to experiment with what types of books and information your child is most interested in — both nonfiction and fiction. “They may not be able to understand everything yet, but if they enjoy hearing the story, the repetition of the words will eventually give them an even more advanced vocabulary,” says Reis.
Book Pick: The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal. Satisfy your child’s curiosity with endless entertainment! This cosmic picture book uses bite-sized text and comic-style art of anthropomorphized planets to make learning about the universe fun and informative.
4-5 years: He can correctly pronounce difficult sounds.
Many children don’t master more challenging sounds until about the age of 7, but if your child is verbally advanced, he may do so by ages 4 or 5. These sounds include “th” (as in thumb), “l” (as in lemon), “s” (as in sister), “r” (as in red or carry), “v” (as in victory), “j” (as in January), “ch” (as in chair or much), and “sh” (as in ship or mash).
“These sounds take a lot of coordination in terms of where you put your tongue, what you do with your lips, and how you move air in your mouth, which kids don’t often have until they’re a little older,” says Fujimoto.
Now and throughout grade school, continue to encourage your child’s language skills by introducing alternative words for certain scenarios. For instance, you can say, “I gazed at the stars last night!” rather than “I looked at the stars.” “It’s a really small tweak, but your child might ask what ‘gazed’ means, and it gives you the opportunity to explain the word,” says Fujimoto. And of course, incorporate as many books, games, and songs into your child’s daily life as possible — as you do, his vocabulary will continue to skyrocket.