Language and Literacy Development in 3-5 Year Olds

Learn strategies and activities to help your 3- to 5-year old master language use.
By Michelle Anthony, PhD and Daniella Bizzell



Language and Literacy Development in 3-5 Year Olds

If the job of a toddler is to learn to talk, the job of a preschooler is to learn to communicate, which is a complicated task indeed! From learning the sounds that make up words, to figuring out what the words mean and determining how to combine them into syntactic strings that have meaning within a culture or environment, mastering language use is a major achievement for such young children.

Language Use

Language ability means a child is outgrowing the use of symbols and representational thinking (the ability to have one thing stand for another). According to Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky, language develops from social interactions for communication purposes. To guide behaviors, overcome obstacles, and acquire new skills, children use what Vygotsky termed private speech, a verbalized, but really internal, monologue which reaches its height between 4-6 years old. 

Within a Vygotskian framework, strategic use of language facilitates:

  •  Thinking 
  • Understanding 
  • Learning 

For younger children, parents restructure incorrect speech into a socially acceptable form (e.g.,“You would like a cookie” when their child says, “Me have cookie.”). Similarly, they use expansions to elaborate on their child’s more simple communications (e.g., “We go,” becomes, “Yes, we are going to the store.”). As children mature, parents will seamlessly withdraw the previous supports. This means language use and vocabulary development is fostered within a social and cultural context, through meaningful interactions with parents, caregivers, peers, siblings, etc.

Book Pick: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is a classic tale parents are sure to recognize. Full of colorful images drawn up by famous illustrator Eric Carle matched with simple nouns and verbs for the earliest of readers, this colorful board book can help your child associate words with images during parent-child read aloud. 

Language Development: Forming Sentences

By the age of three, most children have considerable experience with language. They can understand most sentences, understand the use of basic prepositions (e.g., on, in, under), and use pronouns such as I, you, we, and they, along with some plurals. They show immense creativity in their language use, creating phrases for words they don’t know (e.g., calling snow “fluffy rain” or broccoli “eating trees”). Their spoken sentences on average are as many words long as they are old. And across the preschool period, children are learning to categorize items (e.g., a shoe is not a fruit; a collar, leash, and bone are all dog items, etc.).

Book Pick: A Big Guy Took My Ball! (An Elephant & Piggie Book), and the entire Elephant and Piggie series, is a great tool to use as your child advances her language skills. Using an imaginative plot with silly characters combined with expanded sentences and budding vocabulary, this title will boost her skills and make reading fun! Plus, this series teaches your little one all about the power of friendship.

Language Development: Asking Questions

Children this age learn to ask questions, the most prevalent of which is the question “Why?” which they are known for asking over and over. Preschoolers also learn how to produce negative sentences or how to negate sentences (“I am not going”).

Book Pick: Full of silly questions and sillier rhymes, Frog on a Log? encapsulates two things preschoolers love: asking questions and rhyming words. When the frog doesn't understand why he has to sit on a log, a slew of questions ensue matched with a wonderful pattern of rhymes. Teaching phonics while intriguing your curious kiddo, this title is sure to catch his attention. 

Language Development: Expanding Sentences and Storytelling

Before they are 6, children can recall parts of a story, use future tense, begin to tell stories, and can say their name, age, gender, and address. Their sentences are on average at least 5 words. Their vocabulary has increased from around 1000 words to upwards of 8-10,000. They are now able to define common items by use can follow three step directions.

Children’s grammar gets increasingly complex over these years, while remaining uniquely “preschool-like.” For example, by 5 they begin to use word endings (e.g., ing, ed), at times incorrectly. That is, children learn a grammar rule through interaction and then over apply that rule. For instance, they will say “goed or “eated.” That being said, 5-year-olds use increasingly descriptive language for functional purposes, including conveying information, asking questions, and providing explanations.

Book Pick: Donut the bear is not ready for his tale to end. The End (Almost) is the perfect title for children who aren't ready to close the book even though the story's over. A creative read by New York Times bestselling author Jim Benton, this creative plot will harness your child's inner storyteller while incorporating important language boosting text and lots of laughs. 

Language Enhancing Strategies

  • Offer function cues and see if your child can identify the word (e.g., We eat this with syrup: pancakes). Try this fun vocabulary game for practice!
  • Help your child better understand prepositions by asking her to put the box under the table, next to the spoon, beside the bed, etc. Introduce relationships (e.g., first, last, right, left, up, down).
  • Have your child bring the item to the owner when you say “it’s Daddy’s,” or, “it’s his.”
  • Name items in a category and see if your child can identify the category label. Use this helpful title full of categories your child is sure to recognize. 

Literacy Development: Learning Phonics Through Sounds 

The preschool years are the time during which children’s emergent literacy abilities develop. In fact, these skills are the foundation onto which children’s later reading and academic abilities will build off. Most important for literacy is the development of phonological awareness, or the ability to recognize and manipulate the sound units that make up words. Once a child can auditorally distinguish individual sounds, she learns to link the sound with the visual representation — the letter or the individual word.  

By the end of the preschool period, most children will know their upper and lowercase letters, and understand that letters make up the sounds in words. They are beginning to sound out words in their environment or in books. They understand the basic conventions of print, and can do some basic phonetic (sound-based) spelling in early story writing or picture labeling. You can make learning sounds tactile by making scratch-and-sniff letters or words: write the words with glue and sprinkle Kool-aid® or Jello® powder over them. Have your child trace the letters to release the smell.

Book Pick: Paw Patrol Phonics Set includes 12 different readers that cover inidvidual phonics concepts meant to help your child as she begins to read independently. Focusing on auditory awareness and how words sound, while featuring your child's favorite puppy pals, she'll love learning with the PAW patrol while taking in important skills. 

Literacy Development: Expanding Skills

Most children can use their phonological awareness skills and:
- Generate rhyming words
- Identify words that begin with the same sound as a target word
- Blend sounds together (/k/ /aah/ /t/ into ‘cat’) 
- Understand print conventions such as left to right or top to bottom orientation of words 

Children love stories and can often memorize and “read” their favorite books, often reciting the lines by heart. They know that spaces separate words and can identify familiar words in favorite books or familiar environments (e.g., reading the stop sign or a favorite restaurant name). Invite them to write sounds or words on a dry erase slate and then trace (and erase) with a q-tip.

Book Pick: BOB BOOKS: Rhyming Words is a super cool collection highighting rhyming patterns, words, and rhyme families for your beginning reader. With ten mini-books, thirty puzzle flashcards, and silly stories galore, your child will have a blast while he practices important phonics skills. 

Literacy Development: Fine Motor Skills

Their fine motor skills vary and some children can produce all letters and many pictures with precision and accuracy. Others may struggle to maintain size and form. A fun way to support sound writing (over letter writing) is to put hair gel, food coloring, and glitter into a zip lock bag. Tape the bag to the table and use it as a squishy surface for drawing sounds (e.g., you say “aah” as opposed to “a”) or words.

To further foster fine motor and writing abilities, have your child draw and write letters or words in shaving cream, finger paint, sand, or rice. Invite your child to experiment with all sorts of writing tools, such as paints, chalk, bath crayons, clay, blocks or magnets to put sounds together and make early words based on phonetics. For more ideas, check out Create a Fairy-Inspired Sensory Writing Tray by blogger Christie Burnett. 

Book Pick: Scholastic Early Learners: Write and Wipe ABC 123 let's your child practice holding a writing utensil while writing out uppercase and lowercase letters and numbers! Plus, the dry erase tracing mats make for easy clean-up and even easier fixes if your child is struggling. This is the perfect title for familiarizing your little one with writing while working on handwriting. 

Literacy Development: Storytelling

Children this age begin to play with language. They make up stories based on fantasy, but tell these tales as if they are real. Encouraging story-telling will advance their cognition, linguistic abilities, and creativity. They are beginning to understand concrete riddles (”Knock, Knock.” “Who’s there?” “Boo.” “Boo who?” “Why are you crying?”), love silly language, nonsense rhymes, and bathroom talk. 

Book Pick: The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf (A StoryPlay Book) is meant for reading together and boosting your child's vivid imagination. Full of activities and prompts, your little storyteller can make the tale of the three little pigs her own while developing reading comprehension skills and keeping her intrigued through loads of humor. 

Phonetic Word Games

Isolating individual sounds lets children command the system that makes up words and is the basis of reading:

  • Have your child tell you the individual sounds he hears in words (remember, sounds, not spelling, so they would hear 3 sounds in “three:” th, r, (long)e.; frog would have 4 sounds: f, r, o, g. Try reading aloud this fun title to combine his love of storytelling with sound practice. 
  • Switch out letters: See if he can manipulate isolated sounds by making new words as they switch out sounds (e.g., replace the /c/ in ‘cat’ with /b/ (bat)).
  • Make a hopscotch board with letters or phonetic words instead of numbers. Have your child say the sound or read the word before hopping onto the square.
  • Come up with Rhyming words while passing the time. Then read this rhyme-filled title to keep the momentum going. 
  • Isolate sounds at the beginning, middle, and end of words.

If learning to read is hard for your child, he needs support. The newest research on literacy development in children emphasizes the importance of providing reading interventions sooner rather than later. 

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