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



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 is a direct outgrowth of a child’s 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. Private speech reaches its height between 4-6 years old. As development progresses, it becomes inaudible muttering, to then become internalized as inner speech or “thought.”

Within a Vygotskian framework, strategic use of language facilitates thinking, understanding, and learning. Parents, without trying, scaffold (or support) children’s language learning, adjusting the support as children become more skilled. For younger children, parents recast young utterances — they restructure children’s 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 to get eggs for dinner.”).

As children mature and their utterances become more standard, parents will seamlessly withdraw the previous supports. Thus, language use and vocabulary development is fostered within a social and cultural context, through meaningful interactions with parents, caregivers, peers, siblings, etc. While learning about language, children are also learning about culture, behavioral expectations, and social interactions.

Language Development
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 (e.g., at 3 they produce 3-word sentences). A majority of their words should be understandable to a person outside the home. 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.).

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. To help parents know how to answer the onslaught of wonderings, check out Preschoolers also learn (over time) how to produce negative sentences or how to negate sentences (“I am not going”).

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 at least 4-fold, from around 1000 words to upwards of 8-10,000. They are now able to define common items by use (e.g., a chair is something you sit in). Most children this age can follow three step directions.

Children’s syntax (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), but they often show overregularization. That is, children learn a grammar rule through interaction and then over apply that rule. For instance, they will say “goed or “eated,” applying the “add -ed to a word to make it past tense” rule, despite the fact that they will have never heard adults use the incorrect forms and they previously said the words correctly. These peculiarities notwithstanding, 5-year-olds use increasingly descriptive language for functional purposes, including conveying information, asking questions, and providing explanations.

Language enhancing strategies:

  • Offer function cues and see if your child can identify the word (e.g., We eat this with syrup: pancakes). A fun online category vocabulary builder for preschoolers is What's the Word, a reading and vocabulary game.
  • 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. Try this fun app also: Creationary Lego.

Literacy Development*
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 of. Most important for literacy is the development of phonological awareness (often called phonemic awareness), the ability to recognize and manipulate the sound units that make up words, be these individual phonemes (sounds) or syllables. Once a child can auditorally distinguish individual sounds, she learns to link the sound with the visual representation — the letter or the individual word. Thus, discerning sounds is a key early literacy skill. To get practice with generic auditory discrimination skills, try this Magic School Bus activity.

While most preschool programs will teach children letter names, more relevant to cracking the code system for reading is the letter-sound orientation. Thus, you can shortcut your child’s learning curve by identifying letters by their sounds, as opposed to by a letter’s name (a la Montessori). For example, instead of calling the letter an “A,” call it an “aah,” using the short sound for early learners. Here is a fun alphabet song that use letter sounds instead of letter names.

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.

Most children can use their phonological awareness skills and generate rhyming words, identify words that begin with the same sound as a target word, and blend sounds together (/k/ /aah/ /t/ into ‘cat’). Many children can also identity blends (e.g., fl, str) and digraphs (e.g., ph, ch). Children love stories and can often memorize and “read” their favorite books, often reciting the lines by heart. Preschool children understand many print conventions, such as the left to right, top to bottom orientation of English words. 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.

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, etc. Have him use blocks or magnets to put sounds together and make early words based on phonetics (e.g., “rope” is spelled the way it sounds: rop). A fun app that uses the letter’s sound as opposed to its name: ABC PocketPhonics Lite: Letter Sounds and Writing + First Words.

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. 

Phonetic Word Games
Isolating individual phonemes (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.
  • Switch out letters: See if he can manipulate isolated phonemes 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.
  • Write letters or phonetic words onto the Candyland color cards. Have your child say the letter or read the word in order to advance to the colored space. A fun learn-to-spell app is Learn to Spell: Reception Class.
  • Play with Nina the Naming Newt and her friends, or Clifford the Big Red Dog's phonics game — both games will allow your child to identify letters, sounds, and rhymes by category.
  • Come up with Rhyming words while passing the time. For online fun, try Super Why.
  • 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. 

Stages & Milestones
Alphabet Recognition
Listening and Speaking
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Early Reading
Child Development and Behavior
Communication and Language Development