Understand the skills of your  young child

The development of receptive (listening) and expressive (speaking) language in very young children is important because oral language has a measurable impact on the acquisition of literacy skills in later years.

In our Guide from Birth - 6 Years, we have outlined the behaviors and skills that preschoolers should demonstrate, at specific ages, to help you understand how language and communication develops in typical children.

Every child is unique and therefore the rate of development may vary between siblings or peers. It is also possible that a child may not reach a developmental milestone until the upper end of the specified age range. As a parent, you would want to note whether your child is missing just one behavior, or several, within any age bracket. This might indicate the need for an assessment to determine whether or not your child has a language-based learning disability. You’ll want to talk with your child’s medical professional or teacher about your concerns. Bring the developmental checklist along with you. Together you can begin to answers your questions.

A Guide from Birth to 6 years1
0-6 Months
  • Produces different cries for hunger, discomfort, etc.
  • Vocalizes 2 different sounds such as “eh, aah”
  • Begins to make several new sounds such as p,b,m
  • Practices making sounds when alone
  • Startles to loud, sudden noises
  • Purposefully looks toward speaker’s voice
  • Turns to his/her own name
  • Appears to recognize familiar words like "daddy, mama, bye bye" etc.
  • Responds to "no" 50% of the time
  • Laughs or chuckles
  • Often looks at speaker and responds to voice by smiling
  • Seeks and maintains eye contact with adults
  • Initiates and takes turns making sounds with adults
6-12 Months
  • Begins to babble (e.g., "aba-ba-ba-ba" then shortens to two syllables "baba")
  • Combines different sounds as if speaking sentences
  • Says first meaningful words (e.g., "dad, mom, bye-bye")
  • Imitates or repeats words or sounds after adult ("Uh-oh!")
  • Uses 3+ words with some consistency
  • Uses gestures such as shaking head no, pointing, and waving goodbye, etc.
  • Reaches to be picked up (wants up)
  • Looks at familiar objects when named
  • Understands simple "where" questions (e.g., "Where’s daddy?")
  • Understands "no" and simple verbal requests such as "Come here" and "Stop that"
  • Plays and later initiates social games such as peek-a-boo, so big, and pat-a-cake
12-18 Months
  • Makes a variety of new sounds including t,d,w,n,h
  • Communicates wants by using a combination of sounds, words, and gestures (e.g., Points at ball on shelf and says "ba")
  • Consistently uses 5 or more meaningful words that are understood by familiar adult
  • Asks "What’s that?"
  • Points out surrounding objects to others
  • Points to objects when named by adult
  • Points to 3 body parts on self or others
  • Finds and brings familiar object from another room when asked
  • Understands 50+ words
  • Plays appropriately with a variety of toys
  • Looks at pictures in books for 2 or more minutes
18-24 Months
  • Uses consonants such as p,b,m,t,d,n,h at the beginning of 1-2 syllable words
  • Talks rather than using gestures
  • Directs adult attention to object of interest by pointing ("look," or "what’s that?")
  • Answers simple yes/no and “what” questions
  • Frequently imitates or repeats last word said to him/her
  • Imitates simple, familiar actions in play (e.g., sweeping)
  • Plays ball and other back-and-forth play with adult
  • Uses two toys together in pretend play (e.g., bottle and baby, car and garage)
24-30 Months
  • Uses approximately 25 different consonants and vowels, but continues to leave out sounds/syllables or substitutes sounds
  • Speaks more and more new words each week
  • Uses 50 or more words
  • Begins combining words into simple sentences (e.g., "go bye-bye," "more cookie," "go nigh-nigh")
  • Changes intonation to ask questions
  • Speech understandable to familiar people in context
  • Rarely imitates last word said to him/her
  • Imitates 2-3 word phrases
  • Points to most body parts
  • Understands action words
  • Appears to understand the meaning of longer sentences (e.g., "When we get to the store, I’ll buy you an ice cream")
  • Understands size concepts (big and little) and number concepts
  • Uses most toys appropriately
30-36 Months
  • Uses simple sentences (e.g., "I want more cookies")
  • Rapid increase in understanding of new words
  • Talks about recent special experiences
  • Refers to self using pronouns (e.g., I, me, mine, my)
  • Beginning to rote count: 1, 2, 3…
  • Answers yes/no questions correctly
  • Follows two-step directions that are related (e.g., "Get your mittens and give them to Grandma")
  • Acts out everyday experiences (e.g., stirring the food and feeding the baby)
36-48 Months
  • Has speaking vocabulary of 900-1500 words
  • May have difficulty saying some sounds (f,v,j)
  • Uses 3-4 word sentences
  • Speech can be understood 80% of the time by a familiar person
  • Asks "why" questions
  • Follows more complex, two-part directions ("Hang up your coat and then get a book")
  • Answers simple "who, what, where" questions
  • Carries on short conversations
  • Acts out past events
  • Play is imaginative
48-60 Months
  • Has speaking vocabulary of over 2000 words
  • Uses 4-5 word sentences
  • Uses longer, more adult-like sentences
  • Speech can be understood 80% of the time
  • Tells a story from own experience
  • Defines words in simple terms
  • Follows 2-3 step directions ("Get your coloring book and crayons and bring them outside")
  • Answers "why, how, how many" questions
  • Likes pretend play and acting
  • Joins in play appropriately with other children
  • Is beginning to use problem-solving and planning skills
60-72 Months
  • Has speaking vocabulary of 2500 words
  • May still have difficulty making a few sounds (e.g., l, r,s)
  • Uses 5-6 word sentences
  • Speech is understood by strangers
  • Tells imaginative stories
  • Uses all pronouns correctly (he, she, it, etc.)
  • Answers phone and carries on conversations
  • Plays board games
  • Play is imaginative and cooperative
  • Sequences pretend events
  • Understands concepts such as time, space and quantity

1 "Early Language and Literacy Development: A Guide from Birth to 6 years." The content was extracted from First Steps in Communication, a language "wheel" co-created by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and UCLL in 2003 and updated by UCLL in 2010. You can order the Wheel from UCLL by phone 734-764-8440 or email ucll@umich.edu (sample below).

UCLL_wheel.pdf185.11 KB