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Language development - age 2 to 3 years


The first 3 years of life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive period for learning speech and language skills. These skills develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others. Children can develop speech and language skills at slightly different rates however, they follow a natural progression or timetable for mastering language skills. See below for a checklist of normal speech and language milestones in children from 2 to 3 years of age.

At 2 to 3 years, your child should be able to do the following:

  • Begin to understand opposites, phrases for where things are located and for size, such as “up/down, big/little”
  • Follow 2-step directions for things that are not related, like “put the ball in the cup and give me the car”
  • Have a word for almost everything
  • Use 2-word to 3-word phrases to talk about things, such as “my truck,” and asks questions, like “Where’s Mommy?”
  • Name objects to direct attention to them or ask for them
  • Use speech that friends and close family members can understand most of the time
  • Understand and use common action words, such as “running,” “jumping”
  • Name 1–2 colors
  • Respond to simple questions, like “Where do you sleep?”
  • Refer to self by using pronouns, such as “I, me, my”
  • Engage in more pretend play

What you can do to help

  • Be a good speech model. Do not imitate your child's unclear speech. Correct your child in a positive way by rephrasing, repeating, and relabeling.
  • Teach your child new words and concepts by repeating and expanding on what he says. For example, if your child says, “pretty flower,” you can respond by saying, “Yes, that is a pretty flower. The flower is bright red. It smells good, too. Do you want to smell the flower?”
  • Let your child know that attempts at communicating are important to you by asking him to repeat things that you do not completely understand. For example, say, “I know you want a block. Tell me again which block you want.”
  • Build your child’s vocabulary. Introduce new words by reading books that have a simple sentence on each page. Continue to name objects and describe the picture on each page of the book. State synonyms, or words with similar meanings, for familiar words, and use these new words in sentences to help your child learn them in the context they are used.
  • Look at family photos, and name the people. Use simple sentences to describe what is happening in the pictures such as “You are swimming in the pool.”
  • Ask your child questions that require a choice, rather than simply a “yes” or “no” answer. For example, rather than asking, “Do you want milk? Do you want water?” ask, “Would you like a glass of milk or water?” Be sure to wait for the answer, and reinforce successful communication.
  • Continue to sing songs, play finger games (“Where is Thumbkin?”), and tell nursery rhymes. These songs and games help children learn new words, rhyme, and sequencing.
  • Read books with your child. Show him how to hold the book correctly and turn the pages. Read books at your child’s pace. If he wants to point to lots of pictures on each page before going on, follow his lead. You don’t have to read the words on the page to have a successful reading activity.
  • Use toys to teach your child new concepts. Sort blocks or toy cars by color. Talk about the colors, shape, size, etc. Practice the concepts of in, on, under, and beside, and practice making basic patterns. Blow bubbles; make big and little bubbles. Have your child ask for more bubbles instead of automatically blowing more.
  • Talk to and encourage your child to talk about what he is doing or things he sees when you are in the car, at the store, or during daily activities. For example, at the store talk about the color, size, and shape of different fruits. During bath time, name the steps as you prepare the bath, saying, “First, I turn the water on,” etc. 

Adapted from materials from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association,


If you have questions about language development, call Rehabilitation Services at 901-595-3621. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3621. If you are outside the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2ST-JUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3621.


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

تنبيه: إذا كنت تتحدث باللغة العربية فيمكنك الاستعانة بخدمات المساعدة اللغوية المتوفرة لك مجانا. .يرجى الاتصال بالرقم. 5833-278-866-1  (الهاتف النصي: 1040-595-901-1).