2-3y Understanding of Language

What is it?

Children must learn to understand the language that they hear before they can use this language to communicate with others. A child’s understanding will usually be ahead of their ability to use spoken language.

As children grow and develop the range of words that they understand will increase and they will be able to follow longer and more grammatically complex sentences.

What to expect?

By 3 years, children will usually:

  • Understand instructions and questions related to the here and now (Blank level 1 of abstract language).
  • Understand longer instructions with two key words or ideas, such as “Get your cup and plate” or “Make dolly sit”.
  • Understand simple ‘what?’, ‘who?’ and ‘where?’ questions. For example, “Who is that?” or “Where’s Mummy’s shoes?”.
  • Follow and be able to remember simple stories.

Information & advice

You can help by:

  • Making sure your child is looking at you when you talk to them.
  • Naming familiar objects during every day routines so that your child learns what they are called.
  • Keeping your language simple and clear. Don’t use sentences that are too long or complex.

Watch our video on understanding words, sentences and beyond.


  • Let your child help with jobs around the home and talk about what you can see or what you are doing together.
  • Look at books together and talk to your child about what you can see or what characters are doing/saying. Encourage your child to join in with actions or words/phrases from the story.
  • Read the same stories regularly as repetition helps children to understand and remember the language that they hear.
  • Sing action songs and rhymes with your child as this will help them about the rhythm and patterns of language.
  • Talk with your child about things that are in the ‘here and now’, that is things that they can see and/or hear. Remember to leave lots of pauses to give your child time to respond or start a conversation themselves.