3-4y 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 4 years, children will usually:

  • Understand words related to position, colour, size and number. For example, ‘on’ the table, ‘red’ ball, ‘big’ car and ‘two’ bananas.
  • Understand questions related to details about the ‘here and now’  such as “Who is sitting on the chair?”, “Which one is green?” and “What do we cut with?”
  • Understand longer instructions with three key words or ideas.
  • Understand simple instructions.
  • Start to show interest and enjoyment in simple jokes.

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.


  • Give longer instructions for them to follow.
  • Set aside a ‘Special Time’ with your child to talk about what they have done that day. This will give them practice in talking about things that happened in the past/things that they can’t see.
  • Play games that involve using words for position (in/on/under), size (big/little), number and colour.
  • Follow your child’s lead in play. Talk about what they are saying and doing rather than asking lots of questions.
  • Describe characters from a familiar story and see if your child can tell you who you are talking about.
  • Remember to use more comments than questions with your child. Four comments to every question is a good rule to try and stick to.
  • Ask questions related to details about the ‘here and now’ (Blank level 2 of abstract language). For example, ‘Who?/What?/Where?’ questions and questions about the characteristics or function of an objects.