Language in the Toddler and Preschool Years


During the toddler and preschool years, most children are building their vocabularies rapidly. Since toddler age, children employ an innate skill called fast mapping, in which they quickly connect and contrast new words they hear with words they already know, and thereby almost instantly learn new words when hearing them even only once.

Parents and teachers are often boggled by how quickly young children can comprehend new words each week. In the preschool years (ages 3-5), children are still increasing their knowledge of words and ability to use them. They likely will begin to recognize letters, to write their own name, to recognize rhymes and other word patterns, and be interested in the written words that are around them. Several developmental characteristics are common for toddler and preschool-aged children as they continue to build their use of language:

  • Overextension- Young children are likely to “overextend” and apply a term that describes one thing to all other things that are similar to it. For example, a very young child may say “daddy” to describe all adult men, or use “doggy” to describe any kind of mammal.
  • Under-extension- Similarly, a child might think that a term that can be used more generally can only be used for the one thing that they are familiar with. They might think that “the park” is only that one particular place by their home, and may correct you if you describe somewhere else as a “park”.  
  • Over-regularizationThis is a very common error that children make while in the toddler and preschool years. Over-regularization occurs when a child applies a perceived grammar rule from one word they know to other words incorrectly. We have all heard children that say “sheeps” for more than one sheep, or who say “I drinked the water” instead of “I drank”, or “I goed to sleep.”
  • Word creation- As children learn how useful and powerful language can be, they may make up their own creative terms for objects or actions, or give creative names to their toys and favorite people.

Responding to Developing Language Skills

  • When a child says a word or sentence incorrectly, avoid telling them they are wrong, but instead simply repeat back to them the correct form of what they said. “By directly correcting a child, we may inadvertently halt the learning process, stop the conversation, or even take the fun out of communicating. So, remember to correct your child’s speech and language gently” (Kaplan). For example, if a child says, “Daddy runned really fast!” You might respond with, “Yes, daddy ran very fast!”
  • Recasting is a term used by early childhood specialists for repeating what a child says while inputting correct grammar and sentence structure.
  • Expansion means to respond to your child’s sentences with correct grammar and added detail. If a child says, “Daddy runned fast!”, you might respond with, “Yes daddy ran very fast and he caught the blue ball!”
  • Your children will learn rapidly from observing you and listening to you speak. You might model for them how to say please and thank you to someone when you are out in public or at home. It is important to use the correct words for things, even if it is tempting to repeat a child’s adorable use of “laster-day” when they mean to say “yesterday.”

The years while children are developing their mastery of language are exciting! Children will benefit immensely from the adults in their lives communicating to them and paying attention to what they say.

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Cortese, R. (2017). Helping toddlers expand language skills: tips for encouraging kids ages 0-5 to talk. Child Mind Institute, Inc. Retrieved from:

Kaplan, T. Talking matters: strategies for encouraging your child’s language development. Retrieved from:

PBS Parents. (2017). Preschooler talking milestones. Retrieved from:

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