Supporting young children’s understanding of words and sentences

Tips for supporting understanding of words and sentences in children aged 18 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 my child’s understanding? 

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

Get down to their level: Make it easy for your 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.  

Turn off the TV or music while you’re chatting or playing together: 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. Turn off music and the TV for a while to have some quiet times when you talk or play together. 

Get your child’s attention before talking: Say your child’s name to get their attention before saying something else. Have a look at our fact sheet on supporting your child’s attention and listening skills for more ideas. 

Follow your child’s lead – Watch and notice what your child is looking at, then tell them its name (e.g. ‘It’s a tractor!’). This helps build up your child’s understanding and works better than asking your child ‘what’s that?’.  

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, ‘look at the branch’, ‘it’s a big branch’, ‘he’s climbing along the branch’. Have a look at our factsheet on helping your child learn new words for more information. 

Give your child choices. Rather than saying “Would you like a snack?” ask them “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 your child to listen and understand what you are saying by talking in short, simple sentences. For example, when your child picks up a toy, use simple sentences to name what it is or what it’s doing, for example, ‘it’s a teddy’ or ‘teddy’s sleeping’.  

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

Break up requests into short chunks or steps. It will be easier for your child 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. 

Use real objects, pictures and actions. Show your child an object at the same time as talking about it. For example, say ‘this towel feels soft and fluffy’ while you are holding the towel and rubbing it with your fingers.  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 your child thinking time. Leaving gaps or pauses when talking with your child gives them time to think about what you have said. Try counting to five in your head after you say something – they may surprise you with what they say or do next! 

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

Looking for more information? 

The BBC Tiny Happy People website has lots of information about supporting communication skills in children from birth to five years old, including how to use visuals to support children’s understanding.