Developing your child's understanding

In order to be able to use words in sentences and speak, it is necessary for children to understand what is being said. In typical development, understanding always comes before talking. A 2-year-old will say around 50 words but understand between 200 and 300. There is a wide variation in this, and there are lots of things you can do to help support your child. What is important is that you do something so that they have the best possible chance of flourishing in pre-school and, later, in school.

Top Tips for developing understanding

a) Make sure your child is looking at you and concentrating before speaking with them. For more information, see Developing listening and attention.

b) Use Non-Verbal Communication, gesture, visuals, objects, facial expression when helping your child to learn new words and ideas. See Interacting with your child and Non-Verbal Communication.

c) Don’t give lots of instructions all in one go. Make sure your child is listening, then give one short ‘instruction’. Watch and see if they understand. If they don’t, repeat and add an action or a gesture. If your child doesn’t respond, reflect on what you have asked. If it was too difficult, simplify and try again.

d) If your child is aged 4 and you want them to follow a sequence of instructions, give the instructions in the order in which you wish them to be completed. So, say, ‘Put your boots on and then go outside’, rather than, ‘You can go outside once you have put your boots on’.

man and son in park

e) Tell your child what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. Negative statements are harder to understand. So, say, ‘Hands down’ rather than, ‘Stop hitting’. Otherwise, what they are likely to hear is ‘hitting’ and keep going!

f) Play games like shopping, where your child has to go to the shop and buy certain items. Begin by having your child just listen for one item and then build it up to three. Make sure they know the items in the shop when you are playing a game like this. For more information, see Developing your child’s vocabulary.

g) Be aware that 2–3-year-olds typically understand instructions such as ‘Show me the…’, ‘Find another car like this’. Some may understand ‘where’, ‘what’ and ‘who’ questions. They are unlikely to be able to answer ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.

h) Typically, 3–4-year-olds should be able to answer ‘where’, ‘what’ and ‘who’ questions and some may be able to answer ‘why’ and ‘how’. So be careful of the questions you ask.

i) Always remember to use appropriate interaction strategies when talking with your child, to ensure they have the best chance of understanding what you say. For more information, see Interacting with your child.

Web links

Check out these pages to find lots more information and great ideas.

  • Teaching skills to children: different approaches
  • Language Development in Children: 0–8 years
  • Helping your child understand language
  • The Fundamental Building Blocks of Speech and Language

  • If you are concerned about your child’s development, this may be a helpful source of advice:

  • Talking Point

  • Back to Family Resources

    Last modified: Friday, 15 May 2020, 2:24 PM