Support young children’s understanding of words and sentences

Tips for professionals: supporting understanding of words and sentences in children aged eighteen months to five years. 

How do children develop skills in understanding words and sentences? 

Children learn to understand words and sentences gradually over time. This starts when they are still babies, for example when they begin to notice that their parent or caregiver says the word ‘bath’ every time they turn on the taps. Over time, as they hear more talking, children start to understand more and more words and sentences. Children need to hear a word many times in lots of different situations before they fully understand it. 

In typical development: 

  •  By 18 months, most children can understand the names of things around them, such as ‘ball’, ‘teddy’ and ‘mummy’, as well as other simple action words like ‘kiss’ and ‘sleep’.  
  • At 3 years, children start to understand more complicated words like ‘big’ and ‘little’.   
  • By 3 years, children will also usually understand longer sentences such as ‘find your shoes and put them in the bag’.  
  • At 4 years, most children will understand sentences containing more complicated words such as time, colour and number words. For example, ‘tomorrow’, ‘purple’ and ‘three’.  
  • Children’s understanding of questions will develop over time: 
  • By two years, most children understand simple questions like ‘where’s teddy?’. 
  • By three years, most children are able to understand what, where, who questions. 
  • By four years old, most children understand more complicated ‘why ...?’ or ‘what would you do if …?’ questions.  

How can I support the understanding skills of children in my setting? 

Supporting children’s understanding of words and sentences is a really important part of developing their communication skills. You can help a child’s understanding using the tips below. 

Get down to their level: Make it easy for the child to notice you and hear what you are saying by getting down to their level and talking or playing face-to-face. Sit opposite them on the floor or at the table.  

Reduce background noise:  Young children are still developing their listening skills, and it can be difficult for them to listen and understand if there are a lot of distractions or noise. Early years settings can be very busy and noisy at times. Try to reduce unnecessary noise when possible, especially when children need to listen.  

Get the child’s attention before talking: Say the child’s name to get their attention before saying something else. 

Follow the child’s lead – Watch and notice what the child is looking at, then tell them its name (e.g. ‘It’s a tractor!’). This helps to build children’s understanding and works better than asking children what things are called.  

Repeat words again and again. Children need to hear a new word lots of times before they learn it properly. You can help by repeating words often in lots of different sentences and at different times. For example, repeat the word ‘branches’ by pointing to the tree in a book and saying things like, ‘look at the branch’, ‘it’s a big branch’, ‘he’s climbing along the branch’. Then when you next see a tree outside, repeat the word branch again, saying something like, ‘there’s a squirrel on that branch’.  Have a look at our factsheet on helping children learn new words for more information.  

Give children choices. Rather than saying “Would you like a snack?” give them a choice such as, “Do you want raisins or cucumber?”. Show them the food at the same time as naming it to help their understanding. 

Keep your sentences short and simple. Help children to listen and understand what you are saying by talking in short, simple sentences. For example, when playing alongside a child, use simple sentences to name what they are playing with and what they are doing, for example, ‘sand’, ‘digging sand’, ‘sand in the bucket’.  

Emphasise important words when you are talking. For example, if a child is building a tower you could say, ‘Wow, that’s a tall tower!’, making the word ‘tall’ stand out by using your voice, excited facial expression and by using your hands to show how high it is. 

Break up requests into short chunks or steps. It will be easier for the children in your setting to follow simple requests given separately like “go and get your jumper”, “now get your water bottle”, and then “put them in your rucksack”, rather than telling them all of these things together. 

Talk about the “here and now”. Talk about real things that are there in front of the child. For example, talk about the food the child is eating, the toy they are playing with or the picture they are looking at. It’s easier for young children to understand things in the “here and now” rather than something that has happened in the past (or will happen in the future). 

Use real objects, pictures and actions. Show the child an object at the same time as talking about it. For example, say ‘the windmill’s spinning round and round’ while the child is watching it spin. Do the same with pictures in books or photos – point to show the child the thing you are talking about.  Use props with stories, for example, if sharing a story such as Handa’s surprise have the real fruits to show as you talk about them in the story. This will also help keep the children engaged. Finally – use your hands!  For example, stretch your arms wide when talking about something that’s ‘big!’.  For more ideas, have a look at our factsheet on using visual support.  

Give children thinking time. It is important to leave gaps or pauses when talking with children – it gives them time to think about and understand what you have said. Try saying something and then counting to 10 in your head before you speak again – the child may surprise you with what they say or do next! 

Sing favourite action songs and rhymes regularly in your setting. Doing the actions at the same time will help children understand the words. Don’t be afraid to repeat – hearing the same songs over and over helps them learn the words in the song.