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Your little one’s first babbling sounds may be a distant memory, and your pre-schooler may amaze you every day with the number of new words they’ve learned. At the same time, perhaps you’re wondering if they’re ever going to master some sounds. Here’s everything you need to know about children’s speech development, and what you can do to support it.

Speech and language milestones

At three years old, children still often miss out the little grammatical words like ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘they’, or muddle them up, but by the age of four you’ll notice your child start to say longer sentences using ‘because’, ‘then’ or ‘so’.

They’ll start using describing words to tell you what things are like or where they are, and will be able to talk to you about what they’ve been doing and where they’ve been.

When they’re playing, you’ll hear them talking in the voice of the character they’re pretending to be, saying things like: “I’m the fairy. You have three wishes.” They’ll also be asking you lots of questions: ‘why?’, ‘where?’ and ‘who?’, although they might not be able to answer harder ‘why?’ questions yet.

Children playing outside on a swing

By age four, most children’s speech is clear to understand, although there are usually some sounds (like ‘r’, ‘l’, ‘th’, ‘j’, ‘ch’, ‘sh’ and ‘sp’) that they will still struggle with. If they find a sound hard, they will simply miss it out, for example saying ‘pider’ for ‘spider’, or replace it with another sound, for example saying ‘wed’ instead of ‘red’.

How you can help

Good communication is important for learning, so just like building their listening skills, helping your child talk about what they’re thinking and feeling will ensure they’re really well prepared for starting school. Here are some of the things you can do to support speech development:

  • Children learn new words best when an adult explains them, so if you come across a particular word they’re interested in, take the time to talk about it. For example, if you’re sharing a story about ‘The Furious Dinosaur’, you can say: ‘furious – that means very cross’
  • If your child’s having difficulty with a particular sound or getting mixed up, repeat the word back to them so they can hear the right sound. For example, if the child says ‘cisps’, the adult can say ‘crisps!’
  • When your child asks lots of questions, give them simple explanations that they can start to understand. For example, if they ask a question like ‘why have I got to wear my wellies?’ You can say ‘because they’ll keep your feet dry’
  • Provide lots of choices during the day so children have a chance to talk about what they think and why. For example, you can ask which jumper they want to wear, what kind of sandwich they would like, what they would like to do next
  • Read lots of stories and magazines and look at websites together, and chat about what you’re reading
  • If your child’s stammering, talk to your health visitor who can refer you to a speech therapist for further support, and read these tips for how you can help your child develop fluency

Child reading book with mother

Useful links

Page last reviewed: 21-03-2024

Next review due: 21-03-2027