Is your child on track for increasing basic language skills? Watch out for these stages of language development in toddlers and preschoolers.

Toddler Boy Talking on a Cell Phone
Alexandra Grablewski
| Credit: Getty Images

From first words to full sentences, your child's language skills will advance significantly in their first few years of life. But it can be hard to know if they're hitting the right milestones. "Every child develops on their own timeline, but the best way to help develop your baby's language skills is to simply talk to them," says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., a child psychologist at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. "The number-one way children learn to speak and boost their vocabulary is by listening to their parents at home."

To help track your child's progress, we've listed the typical language milestones to look for at each age. If you feel your child isn't developing at a steady pace, always consult your pediatrician for advice.

1-Year-Old Language Development

Your little one is just beginning to communicate beyond crying. At this age, your kid should be able to:

Say a handful of words. Your toddler still has a limited vocabulary at this point, but you can help it grow by reading and talking to them every day, Dr. Briggs recommends. "At this age, the main concern is that baby's speech is 'mama' and 'dada' specific, meaning that when he says those two words, he is actually referring to Mom and Dad—not the cup or dog."

Imitate your voice. Even though your child isn't saying many words, they're babbling a lot and attempting to imitate the sounds of others. Parents "should be hearing vowel and consonant babbling by 8 or 9 months, and it continues as your baby starts to form words around 12 months," Dr. Briggs says.

Respond accordingly. Pediatricians are mostly concerned with your child's receptive language right now. Do they recognize your voice? Do they turn their head toward different sounds? Do they laugh when others laugh? "Even at this age, he can communicate with intent and get what he wants by pointing or looking toward an object. He should also be able to follow your eyes and look where you're looking," says Kenn Apel, Ph.D., president of the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders in Minneapolis and co-author of Beyond Baby Talk. These responsive actions are more important than how many words your child can say.

Follow simple direction. In addition to responding, see if your child follows simple one-step directions and commands, such as raising their arms when you say "up," drinking milk when you tell them to, handing over a toy upon request, and stopping what they're doing when you say "no" (although they will probably try to do it again!).

2-Year-Old Language Development

This age is the magic number for gauging if a child is on track with speech. Around this period, your growing toddler should be able to:

Expand vocabulary. By 24 months, your child should be using about 50 words regularly, such as more, juice, and Grandma. "The year between 12 and 24 months is the most exciting year in terms of language development," Dr. Briggs says. "Your [tot] is having a vocabulary boost and should be repeating words she hears from you."

Link together words. You should also notice your little one putting together two-word sentences ("My ball" or "Car go"). But don't worry about pronunciation at this point—only about 50 percent of what they say will be completely understandable.

Use pronouns. By now, your tot will start understanding the concept of "me" and "you"—although they might not always use the words properly. For example, they might refer to Dad as "she" and herself as "you." This is common and nothing to worry about; they'll get the hang of it in time.

Identify objects and body parts. Your child should be able to point to their nose, eyes, mouth, and so forth, and start saying each body part, although many children will point well before they can verbalize it. Your little one can also point to pictures of the correct objects when prompted with "Where is the ball?" or "Show me the dog."

3-Year-Old Language Development

Your little one is developing into quite the chatterbox. By now, your toddler should be able to:

Speak clearly in simple sentences. After your child turns 3 years old, you should easily understand what they say—or at least 75 percent of it. "You can hold a conversation with a child this age where he asks you questions and tells you things that happened in his day," Dr. Briggs says.

String multiple words together. You'll be amazed at how your little one talks in sentences between three and six words. "They are complete sentences, but simple ones, such as 'Mommy is eating,'" Dr. Apel says.

Choose the right words. The days of pointing are nearly over. Your kid should know a word for almost everything they want to identify, and they should be able to ask for or indicate objects verbally.

Follow two-part requests. Understanding and carrying out more complicated requests is another development. Your tot should act accordingly when directed with commands, such as "Please take off your boots and put them on the shelf." According to Dr. Apel, "These should still be simple directions used in an everyday context so that it's something he's experienced before. If it's a brand-new experience, it might be more difficult for your child to carry it out."

4-Year-Old Language Development

You're officially in "big boy/big girl" territory now. Your child is growing in leaps and bounds, and their language is getting quite impressive. At this age, your child should be able to:

Speak clearly in more complex sentences. Your growing preschooler now has the ability to tell you an entire story—such as the cool stuff they're doing at preschool—and you can understand nearly every word of it. "By [the time your child is age] 4, even strangers should be able to understand what [she] is saying," Dr. Apel says.

Identify colors, shapes and letters. Experts say 4-year-olds should name at least some colors, shapes, and letters. Take every chance to explore different letters and words with them, Dr. Apel suggests. "You can take any moment, such as eating breakfast, as a chance to teach her something new. For instance, explain how Cheerios is a long word, but milk is a short one. It might take only a few minutes, but a child can learn a lot in that short amount of time."

Understand the concept of time. Your child might not be able to tell time yet, but they should understand the general concept of ordering moments throughout the day (breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon, dinner at night). "It's important for kids to have some redundancy in life," Dr. Apel explains. "Doing the same things each day is good because it allows them to concentrate on picking up the language around them, not the task."

Follow more complex commands. At 4, your child should be able to follow three- or four-step commands, such as "Put your book away, brush your teeth, and then get in bed." Your child should also be able to verbalize their own wants and needs, making requests such as "I want pizza for dinner and I want to watch Toy Story before bed." Pediatricians and speech pathologists are always on the lookout for issues with receptive language, so if your child can't follow instructions or doesn't seem to understand what you're saying, consult the doctor right away.