Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Three is a big age for both you and your little one! Maybe you’re starting to take them to playgroups or sending them off to preschool. Maybe your child is learning to get along with a new baby, or a younger sibling who is starting to walk and talk. Maybe they are starting to want to follow older siblings around, and beginning to be able to be part of the local group of kids! No matter what is happening in your lives, three is an age when children really start to have huge growth in their communication! Their ability to understand, use words, speak clearly, socialize, and use books will need to grow to keep up with everything they want to do and learn, as well as prepare them for more structured preschool learning!
Before we get into 3 year old milestones, I want to make sure you’re not mixing them up with averages. Milestones are skills 90% of children at an age can do, and missing them is often a sign that your child might need extra support from a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or speech therapist. You will likely even see professionals misunderstand and misuse the term, or meet people who tell you “it’s no big deal, just wait and see!” While sometimes that is fine, I always encourage parents to trust their instincts and make an appointment if you have questions or concerns! It never hurts to talk to a professional, as it can either alleviate your worries or get your child the help they need!
So what skills should your three year old be showing us to be considered as meeting those milestones? I’ll outline them split into separate categories for: language they are understanding, words they’re saying, speech clarity, social skills, and early literacy.
3 year old Milestones for Understanding
Children at 3 should be skilled at pointing to pictures that match words and sentences said by an adult. They should be able to correctly identify size (big vs. little) and quantity (one vs. all). They should be able to point to most of their body parts, and can choose the correct object if an adult only says what it is for (e.g., “What is for sleeping? ..eating? …wearing?” etc.). By three, your child should also be able to understand location words like under, off, and out, even when those words are used to describe something weird and silly (e.g., “Put your pillow under the bed”). Your child should also accurately answer “who”, “where”, and “what” questions logically, meaning they respond with people, places, or things accordingly.
Check out our post on concepts your child should know to follow directions and how to teach them!
3 year old Milestones for Talking
By age 3, I would expect your child to be using about 1000 words and usually talk in sentences of 2-3 words. They should have a variety of word types, including words for places (in, on), size, and a couple of their colours. They also should be using some elements of grammar, such as adding “-s” onto the ends of words to make them plural (cat, cats) and “-ed” for the past tense (jump, jumped). Children at age 3 are also expected to be using more little words like “can”, “is”, “gonna”, “wanna”, “do” (e.g., “I wanna do it”). They will also likely be using the pronouns “he”, “she”, “you”, “mine”, “my”, and “your”.
3 year old Milestones for Speech
Many speech errors are still common at 3, but it should be getting much easier to understand your child. You should understand about 60-75% of what your child is telling you, and they should be using more of the sounds in their words. By three, your child should be able to make the consonant sounds for p, b, m, t, d, n, h, w, y, k, g, and ng (like in “-ing”). They should also now be able to use these sounds both at the beginning AND the ends of simple three-sound words like “bake”, “mat”, “cab”, “food”, or “gum”. It is very important that your child no longer be using a pacifier or bottle at this age, as it can start to impact how their mouth is developing. Drinking from an open cup helps them develop those important oral skills, and is better for keeping teeth where they should be!
3 year old Milestones for Social Skills
Three is a big year for social development! By this age, I would expect that your little one is very interested in other children and wants to join in their play. When your child plays with others, they should be able to play with an identical toy of their own near another child and talk to them about their play, but they likely will not be working together or sharing yet. Children at this age should be able to participate in group activities like songs or circle time with other children, and be helping to put things away. By 3, children should be able to have a back-and-forth conversation with you for multiple turns, and be using their words to ask for things instead of using sounds, gestures, or actions.
3 year old Milestones for Reading
When I look at a 3 year old’s literacy skills, I would expect that they know how to hold a book correctly, flip pages, and will talk to you about the characters. Three year olds should be enjoying longer stories and songs, and can hold their attention for at least 3 minutes. They should also be able to fill in words from familiar songs, rhymes, and stories if you pause in the middle of a sentence. They will likely also be showing early writing skills, by making scribbles in a (kind of) line when you tell them to “write”, which look different than their drawing scribbles.
How to see if your child is meeting their milestones
In order to see if your child is meeting their milestones, try some of these activities with your little one!
Tell your child to do or bring 2 different things in a single sentence, and see if they can remember them both without any repetition or extra help.
Tell your child to put their pillow under the bed (instead of on the bed) or put their toys on the box (instead of in the box). Do not point to help them, as it is important to see if they are understanding the words.
Point to an item of clothing on yourself and ask “Whose is this?”. If your child replies with the colour or item’s name, they may have difficulty with questions.
Get a book and ask your child about the PLACES and see if they can tell you using “in” or “on” instead of simply “here” (e.g., “Where is the boy?” “Where is the bird?”)
Write down the next 50 words or sentences your child says spontaneously (i.e., when they are not answering a question), and see how long they are on average.
See if your child can imitate all of the sounds expected at their age, both at the beginning and ends of words.
Set up a playdate or take your child to a playgroup, and watch to see if your child is interested in other children. See if they will try to join in the play of other kids, and participate in group activities like songs.
Let your child choose a book, and watch to see how they “read” it without any help.
If you have any thoughts or questions, please head over to @chattytherapy on Instagram and send me a DM! I’d love to hear if this was great, areas I can improve, or answer any additional questions you might have about milestones.
Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate you and hope to see you soon!
Chatty Therapy has wonderful speech-language pathologists who can give you more specific ideas on how to work with your child and tailor it to your daily routine. Or we can come into your home to help your child learn the concepts they need. Speech-language pathologists specialize in helping children understand others and express themselves better. If you are worried about your child’s speech, language or feeding abilities, learn more about our services or book a free 15-minute consultation. It may be helpful for us to do an assessment to identify specific areas that your child could use more support with.