- Identify typical language and communication milestones in preschool.
- Discuss the role adults can play in supporting the communication skills of preschool children.
- Discuss what to do if you are concerned with a child’s development.
"Communication works for those who work at it." John Powell
Preschoolers are able and ready communicators. They communicate primarily through language, but they also rely on gestures, facial expressions, and behaviors. This next section will highlight language and communication milestones for preschool children. It will be followed by a section that discusses these milestones by introducing three aspects of language and communication that caregivers can think about: receptive language, expressive language, and conversation skills.
Language and communication develop with extraordinary speed during the early childhood years. Most children babble around 6 months, say their first words at about 1 year, use combined words around the end of their second year, and by the time they are 4 and 5-year-olds, they have elaborate vocabularies and know basic grammar rules. During the preschool years, children increase their vocabulary, use longer and more complex sentences, engage in problem solving, and talk about more than just what is happening at the moment. They talk about things that happened in the past as well as things that will happen in the future. Think of how exciting it is to watch a 3-year-old grow from stringing a few words together to holding elaborate conversations! The information on the chart below is a comprehensive list of language & communication milestones that children typically develop during preschool years. A brief version of this information aimed at parents can be found in an easy-to-use checklist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which preschoolers meet these milestones and that each child is unique. As you may have already learned in the Cognitive and Physical courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development, or to help you know when and what to look for as young children mature. As a preschool teacher, you can use this information, what you learn from families and your own knowledge in the interactions, experiences and environments you create for preschool children.
Learning to communicate is a unique process and specific to each preschooler and family. Many aspects of a child’s environment may contribute to challenges with communication development. A family may wonder about their young child’s communication and language development and feel uncertain about what they are observing, as well as what to expect. As a preschool teacher, you have an opportunity to learn first from a family and consider offering additional developmental information, including possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together can be a valuable resource for you (http://www.kitonline.org), as well as the developmental milestones and act early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html. The table below also highlights possible warning signs for preschoolers:
How Preschoolers Communicate
As you study the chart above, you may notice that some milestones are associated with children’s ability to understand and comprehend language or what others say (receptive communication), others with children’s ability to use words and speak (expressive communication), and others with their ability to engage in language exchanges with peers or adults (social engagement). Let’s take a look at how these aspects of communication unfold as part of the remarkable development of young children from three to five years of age.
Receptive communication refers to a child’s ability to listen and understand language. Children begin to understand more words, longer sentences, and more elaborate questions. They understand the names of most things in their daily environment and actions they see or engage in each day. Children also begin to understand new descriptive words such as “soft,” “hard,” or “smooth”, and emotion words such as “mad,” “sad,” “happy,” “scary”).
Understanding language is closely related to young children’s cognitive development. For example, 3-year-olds begin to use and understand “what,” "where," and “why” questions. By the time they are 4, children understand many words for colors, shapes, and sizes. Understanding language is also closely related to literacy and early math development. During the fourth year, children are learning to understand letter names and sounds and number names and values. Receptive language is essential for success in preschool as children need to understand how to follow directions, and listen to what teachers, other significant adults in their lives, or peers have to say.
Expressive communication refers to children’s ability to express themselves through words, gestures, and expressions. They communicate about their actions, emotions, needs, and ideas. They also respond to what others are saying. This is clear when you watch children playing with each other: they talk about play, describe their actions and ideas, and respond to what their friends are saying and doing. Preschool children may also talk to themselves when they are engaged in difficult tasks, to think out loud, or when they are excited. For example, a child may talk to herself while she is building a high tower with blocks, saying things like “one more, don’t fall!,” or when she completes a new or challenging activity: “I finished the big puzzle all by myself!”
Social engagement involves the understanding and use of communication rules such as listening, taking turns and appropriate ways to use sounds and facial expressions. Conversations involve both understanding (receptive communication) and expressing (expressive communication). Preschoolers learn the ways to use sounds, gestures, facial expressions and words of their family’s language(s) when adults interact, talk, read and sing with them.
Supporting Communication, Language, and Literacy
Effective communication skills are integral to children’s self-expression, their development of social relationships, and to their learning. The foundations for these skills begins at birth and is built throughout the early childhood years. When you engage in and sustain interactions with preschoolers based on their interests, you help strengthen the child’s role as a partner in communication. Communication and language development happen best in the context of consistent, caring and responsive relationships.
Your role as a preschool teacher offers opportunities to support these skills throughout the day. You can use your knowledge about communication and language development alongside your observations of the children in your care. Together, this information can create opportunities to partner with children to maintain their interest through communication. For example, during mealtime with preschoolers, you can maintain eye contact, smile, repeat and add context to the preschoolers’ communication attempts, or follow a preschooler’s eyes as they look at the green vegetables on their plate and then say, “You’re looking at your green peas. What else is green?” Or, talk about who is sitting next to a child. “Who is going to sit beside you today at lunch, Tommy? Oh, look, Cassandra is going to sit beside you.”
Your role as a preschool teacher also offers an opportunity to create an environment that provides what young children need to become good communicators early in life. A communication-rich environment is characterized by intentional and frequent use of such strategies as:
- Learning about communication and language development in preschool children
- Talking with and learning from families, as well as observing and identifying the developmental stage of individual preschoolers, and offering experiences and activities that can best support their development and learning
- Adding words and ideas to best describe preschoolers’ understanding of experiences
- Responding to children’s communication attempts and building on what children are saying
- Using new, complex, and interesting words in conversations
- Following children’s leads, cues, and preferences
- Talking with children throughout the day about the events of the day
- Embedding language games, songs, and rhymes into daily routines and experiences
- Asking children meaningful open-ended questions about their actions, interests, events, or feelings
- Reading to children frequently and providing opportunities for children to engage with books and printed materials
- Incorporating alternative ways and systems of communication based on children’s individual needs (e.g., using pictures or visual cues to foster communication)
- Providing daily opportunities to participate in activities that help them learn new skills or practice existing skills in fun, stimulating, and supportive environments
- Providing opportunities for children to have conversations with each other through a variety of activities.
Understanding developmental milestones is an important aspect of working with young children. Learning about and understanding how preschoolers communicate will help you know how to support them in developing language and communication skills, and what kinds of learning experiences to plan in your classroom and program. Consider the following in your daily work with children in preschool:
- Plan meaningfully: In your daily interactions with children, you can purposefully plan activities that will enable you to generate information about children and how they develop and refine their communication skills. For example, you can observe how children communicate with peers or express themselves as they engage in daily work in your classroom interest areas, how they follow directions as you lead them through activities such as circle time, or how they communicate during free play with peers. You should use this valuable observational information to plan activities that promote further development in children or to adapt goals and activities to meet the unique learning needs of individual children.
- Be sensitive to individual children’s needs: As you engage in these observations, remember that each child is different and that sometimes children may not reach milestones as expected. However, if you are concerned with a child’s development, talk with a trainer. This may be difficult, but it can make the difference in meeting a child’s needs. Trainers can share information with families about typical development and let them know your program is available to help. If your program provides developmental screening tools, these can help begin a conversation about your concerns. You should always talk to a trainer, coach, or supervisor about ways to help the child progress in your classroom.
- Be responsive to families’ needs and preferences: If family members approach you and share concerns about their child’s development, direct them to discuss their concerns with a trainer. The trainer is responsible when dealing with developmental concerns and he or she will begin the process for identifying or referring the child. Families of children older than age 3 could also contact their local school district. The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development for the child to receive services and support that meet his or her individual needs. Additionally, a pediatrician can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to a specialist.
Learn about the tools your program uses to help understand each child’s development. For example, your program might ask families to complete tools like the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). This tool and others like it give your program information about each child’s unique development. Talk to your trainer, supervisor, or coach to learn more about the tools and processes your program uses and who to talk to if families have questions.
The activities in this section aim at helping you learn more about:
- how children in your classroom communicate, and
- how responsive you are when it comes to promoting children’s communication.
Complete the activities and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Phonological awareness, or the ability to identify and be sensitive to how language sounds, plays a big role in reading development. Follow the link for an article from Reading Rockets on phonological and phonemic awareness: https://www.readingrockets.org/helping/target/phonologicalphonemic.
Next, read and review Phonological Awareness Activities for ideas on how you can help children in your classroom identify and become sensitive to how language sounds. Then, take a few minutes to complete the Phonologically Rich Classroom Checklist, and think about how often you are promoting phonological awareness for preschoolers in your classroom.
If families are looking for ideas about good books for the home, you can direct them to Common Sense Media’s Best Books for Families (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-lists#). This website has book lists for children from preschool through the teenage years.
Phonological Awareness Activities
Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Learn the Signs, Act Early: Developmental Milestones. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/FULL-LIST-CDC_LTSAE-Checklists2021_Eng_FNL2_508.pdf
Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
Kids Included Together (KIT). (2022). https://www.kit.org/
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2012). Early Childhood Generalist Standards for teachers of ages 3-8 (3rd ed.).
Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. (2002). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ). https://agesandstages.com/
Phillips, B. M., Clancy-Menchetti, J., & Lonigan, C. J. (2008). Successful Phonological Awareness Instruction With Preschool Children: Lessons From the Classroom. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 28(1), 3–17.
Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. H. (2009). Phonological awareness is child’s play! Young Children; 64, 1.