13 Communication, Language and Literacy Development in the Preschool Years

Chapter Objectives

After this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Discuss communication language and literacy development that takes place during the preschool years 
  • explain theories of language development


A child’s vocabulary expands between the ages of 2 to 6 from about 200 words to over 10,000 words through a process called fast-mapping. Words are easily learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known. The parts of speech that are learned depend on the language and what is emphasized. Children speaking verb-friendly languages such as Chinese and Japanese, tend to learn verbs more readily. But those learning less verb-friendly languages such as English, seem to need assistance in grammar to master the use of verbs (Imai, et al, 2008, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). 

Woman lying on floor beside child, looking at a book together.

Figure 1A woman instructing a girl on vocabulary. (Image by the U.S. Department of the Interior is in the public domain) 

Literal meanings

Children can repeat words and phrases after having heard them only once or twice. But they do not always understand the meaning of the words or phrases. This is especially true of expressions or figures of speech that are taken literally. For example, a supply educator explains that he is working with them because their regular educator has ‘lost their voice’. The children, with great concern, want to know where they lost it and if they will find it again. Or a classroom full of preschoolers hears the teacher say “Wow! That was a piece of cake!” The children begin asking “Cake? Who took it? Are we having cake?


Children learn rules of grammar as they learn a language but may apply these rules inappropriately at first. For instance, a child learns to add “ed” to the end of a word to indicate past tense. Then form a sentence such as “I goed there. I doed that.” This is typical at ages 2 and 3. They will soon learn new words such as “went” and “did” to be used in those situations. 

the impact of training

Remember Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development? Children can be assisted in learning language by others who listen attentively, model more accurate pronunciations and encourage elaboration. The child exclaims, “I goed there!” and the adult responds, “You went there? Say, ‘I went there.’ Where did you go?” Children may be ripe for language as Chomsky suggests, but active participation in helping them learn is important for language development as well. The process of scaffolding is one in which the adult (or more skilled peer) provides needed assistance to the child as a new skill is learned. 

communicating with others

In the preschool years children become more skilled at communicating with others. They become increasingly aware of the conventions of effective conversations. Research shows that four year olds intentionally adjust their communication to match the listener and the context. (Shatz & Gelman 1983, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). In the study four year olds were asked to explain how a toy worked. The study showed that when explaining how the toy worked to adults, the children used longer sentences and talked more overall than compared to when they were explaining how the toy worked to two year olds. Their explanations to toddlers included simpler grammar and more attention-getting words such as see, look, watch. Children are becoming increasingly aware of the responsibilities of the speaker to pay attention to the listener and if the listener appears to not understand that they as the speaker should address this (Shwe & Markman, 1997, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). This might mean more than simply repeating what they said and they may clarify or provide an example. 

Preschoolers also become better listeners and can discern if a message makes sense and who is better informed about a particular topic (Robinson, Champion & Mitchell, 1999, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).


According to the Ministry of Education (2014), via the Continuum of Development, communication, language and literacy development continues to takes place during the preschool/kindergarten stage of development. The skills demonstrated by infants and toddlers continue to develop as children become skilled communicators using verbal and non-verbal styles of communication to converse with peers and adults. Their expanding vocabulary supports them to describe and make meaning of their experiences and the world around them. They notice environmental print, engage in literacy and become increasingly aware of its power as a human activity. Their phonological awareness increases as they manipulate words, recognize letters and begin to write them.

language milestones

The prior aspects of language development in early childhood can also be summarized into the progression of milestones children typically experience from ages 3 to 5. Here is a table of those. 

Table 13.1: Language Milestones

3 years
  • Follows instructions with 2 or 3 steps
  • Can name most familiar things
  • Understands words like “in,” “on,” and “under”
  • Says first name, age, and sex
  • Names a friend
  • Says words like “I,” “me,” “we,” and “you” and some plurals (cars, dogs, cats)
  • Talks well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
  • Carries on a conversation using 2 to 3 sentences
4 years
  • Knows some basic rules of grammar, such as correctly using “he” and “she”
  • Sings a song or says a poem from memory such as the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or the “Wheels on the Bus”
  • Tells stories
  • Can say first and last name
5 years
  • Speaks very clearly
  • Tells a simple story using full sentences
  • Uses future tense; for example, “Grandma will be here.”
  • Says name and address

Table 13.1Language Milestones (Developmental Milestones by the CDC is in the public domain) 

Indigenous Perspectives

Please read the following article Fostering Literacy Success for First Nations, Metis and Inuit by Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse. Shares that Indigenous learners should not be regarded as ESL but as bilingual.

Theories of Language Development

Humans, especially children, have an amazing ability to learn language. Within the first year of life, children will have learned many of the necessary concepts to have functional language, although it will still take years for their capabilities to develop fully.  Here is a recap of the theorists and theories that have been proposed to explain the development of language, and related brain structures, in children.

Skinner: Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner believed that children learn language through operant conditioning; in other words, children receive “rewards” for using language in a functional manner. For example, a child learns to say the word “drink” when they are thirsty; they receive something to drink, which reinforces the use of the word for getting a drink, and thus they will continue to do so. This follows the four-term contingency that Skinner believed was the basis of language development—motivating operations, discriminative stimuli, response, and reinforcing stimuli. Skinner also suggested that children learn language through imitation of others, prompting, and shaping.

Chomsky: Language Acquisition Device

Noam Chomsky’s work discusses the biological basis for language and claims that children have innate abilities to learn language. Chomsky terms this innate ability the “language acquisition device.” He believes children instinctively learn language without any formal instruction. He also believes children have a natural need to use language, and that in the absence of formal language children will develop a system of communication to meet their needs. He has observed that all children make the same type of language errors, regardless of the language they are taught. Chomsky also believes in the existence of a “universal grammar,” which posits that there are certain grammatical rules all human languages share. However, the research does not identify areas of the brain or a genetic basis that enables humans’ innate ability for language.

Piaget: Assimilation and Accommodation

Jean Piaget’s theory of language development suggests that children use both assimilation and accommodation to learn language. Assimilation is the process of changing one’s environment to place information into an already-existing schema (or idea). Accommodation is the process of changing one’s schema to adapt to the new environment. Piaget believed children need to first develop mentally before language acquisition can occur. According to Piaget, children first create mental structures within the mind (schemas) and from these schemas, language development happens.

Vygotsky: Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky’s theory of language development focused on social learning and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is a level of development obtained when children engage in social interactions with others; it is the distance between a child’s potential to learn and the actual learning that takes place. Vygotsky’s theory also demonstrated that Piaget underestimated the importance of social interactions in the development of language.


In this chapter we looked at:

    • Preschooler’s communication language and literacy development
    • theories of language development


Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). Excerpts from “Elect”. Retrieved from https://www.dufferincounty.ca/sites/default/files/rtb/Excerpts-from-Early-Learning-for-Every-Child-Today.pdf


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Child Growth and Development Canadian Ed Copyright © 2022 by Tanya Pye; Susan Scoffin; Janice Quade; and Jane Krieg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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