From Terrible Twos to Fabulous Fours:
The Evolution of Speech and Language
Perhaps there is justifiable reason for the tantrums witnessed around the second year of life. At this time, a child’s understanding of words and sentences is increasing rapidly while his ability to express himself with words and phrases is progressing at a slightly slower rate. This can be a source of frustration for many toddlers, and thus the once happy-go-lucky child may begin to exhibit “melt-downs.” Obviously, the disparity between language understanding and language expression cannot fully explain the phenomenon of the “terrible twos.” However, parents should keep this in mind and encourage their child to use alternative modes of communication until verbal skills have improved, e.g., use of gestures/sign language, pointing to picture symbols to indicate desires, etc. Below are some general guidelines to determine whether a child’s speech and language development are progressing appropriately. If a child lags significantly behind in any area, parents are encouraged to speak with their child’s physician regarding referral to a speech-language pathologist for evaluation, and if needed, treatment.
Speech-Language Developmental Milestones:
Two to Four Years of AgeAgeReceptive Skills
(Understanding)Expressive Skills
(Expression)Speech DevelopmentTwo YearsPoints to identify major body parts on self, e.g., eyes, nose, mouth, etc.
Points to identify most common objects and actions in pictures.
Follows related two-step commands, e.g., “Get your shoe and take it to Daddy.”
Understands several pronouns, e.g., “me, you, my and your.”
Understands spatial concepts such as “in, out of and off.”Uses words more often than gestures to communicate.
Vocabulary around fifty words.
Combines words into short 2-3 word phrases, typically noun + verb combinations.
Progresses from referring to self by name to using early pronouns, although “me” and “I” are often confused.
Uses rising intonation or question inflection, e.g., “My ball?”
Ending sounds may be omitted from words, e.g., “up” said as “uh.”
Approximately 65% of speech should be intelligible.
Three YearsUnderstands several descriptive concepts, e.g., “big, wet, happy, etc.”
Understands negation, e.g., “no” and “not.”
Identifies objects by their functions, e.g., “Which one do you wear?”
Understands most simple “what” and “where” questions.
Generally understands when spoken to in adult language rather than in baby talk. .
Follows unrelated, two-step directions, e.g., “Put your ball in the box, and then wash your hands.”Vocabulary around 150 words.
Able to give name, age and sex.
Produces 3-5 word sentences.
Marks plurals and possessives.
Uses verbs ending in
Answers questions with “yes” or “no.”
Begins to use descriptive words, e.g., big, hot, color words, etc.
Begins to express feelings. The following sounds are typically mastered: p, b, m, n, t, d and w.
Uses consonants in the beginning, middle and end of words, although there may be sound substitutions and/or distortions of more difficult consonants, e.g., l, r, s, sh, ch, j, v, z and th.
Approximately 75- 90% of speech should be intelligible.Four YearsCan identify at least four colors.
Understands more advanced spatial concepts, e.g., “under, next to, behind,” etc.
Follows more complex 2-3 step directions.
Begins to identify shapes.
Able to group objects by categories, e.g., animals, clothing, food, etc.
Understands longer, more complex sentence structures, e.g., “We can get ice cream after we go to the store.”
Vocabulary of at least 250-300 words.
Sentence length continues to expand to 5 or more words.
Answers most questions logically.
Asks a variety of questions, including “what, where, who, why.”
Begins to use regular past tense verb forms. Able to verbally sequence steps to a familiar activity.
Uses language to narrate make-believe play. The following sounds are typically mastered: k, g, f, h, y, ng and s.
May have difficulty producing longer words, e.g., “hippopotamus.”
Speech is typically understood by most people; although sound substitutions and/or distortions of more difficult consonants may persist, e.g., “rabbit” may be produced as “wabbit.”

Remember, these are general guidelines. There will be some variability among children based upon their own particular experiences with language. All children, however, benefit from language-rich environments. Parents/caregivers have many opportunities to help their children’s language growth simply by commenting or talking about daily activities. The narration can be expanded as the child becomes more competent with language. For example, narration for a two-year-old might be “puppy wet;” for a four-year-old, the narration could be expanded to, “The puppy is wet because it’s raining outside.”
Reading books with children is another fabulous opportunity to stimulate language growth. Again, the complexity should shift with age and ability. With younger children, you may simply comment about the pictures in books, then graduate to books with simple language and colorful pictures. As the child’s understanding of language evolve, books with an actual story line can be introduced.
Engaging in play with children is another way to enhance their understanding and use of language. From simple finger plays, like the Itsy-Bitsy Spider, to Simon Says, and later memory/matching games
Talk. Read. Play. Have fun and watch your child’s language grow!