How Many Words Should My Child Be Saying?

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Language development is unique to every child, however, children follow a typical pattern in how they gradually progress and master language skills. Believe it or not, communication starts right when a baby is born. At first, babies will communicate their needs and wants via cries. Their cries turn into coos, which will then turn into babbles. Eventually, young kids begin to use words and string those words together into sentences.

According to Michelle Katsnelson, a speech-language pathologist and creator of Speech with Meesh, language skill is not just about the number of words a child has. "The term "language" refers to expressive language (spoken words and sentences), receptive language (words and sentences the child understands), and pragmatic language (a child's ability to use language socially)", she says.

Though there is some variability in the rate at which children typically develop language, some children experience language delays. These delays can create much frustration, as kids want to communicate but aren't equipped with the tools, or words, to do so. Therefore, it's important to keep track of language development milestones.

"Although I use the milestone chart loosely, it helps to have a word count to see if your child falls within the age range for typical speech development," says Danielle Cashman, a pediatric speech-language pathologist.

Read on to better understand how many words kids should have at each age, ranging from the newborn period through 5 years old. These are the receptive and expressive language milestones, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Birth to 3 Months

During the newborn period, your baby will begin to respond to familiar voices and attempt communication through coos, cries, and facial expressions. Here is what to expect.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Startles at loud sounds
  • Quiets or smiles when hearing caregiver's voice

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Makes cooing sounds
  • Smiles at people
  • Cries differently for each need
  • Startles at loud sounds
  • Quiets or smiles when hearing caregiver's voice

4 to 6 Months

Your baby will become more responsive to tone and sound and will begin to babble during this period.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Responds to changes in tone of voice
  • Pays attention to music
  • Moves eyes in the direction of sounds

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Makes speech-like babbling sounds, like paba, and mi
  • Giggles and laughs.
  • Coos and babbles when playing alone or with caregiver
  • Makes sounds when happy or upset

7 to 12 Months

As they approach their first birthday, your baby will likely respond to their name and commonly used words and string together more sounds, perhaps into first words.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Looks when someone points
  • Turns when you call child's name
  • Understands words for common items and people (e.g., cuptruckjuice, daddy)
  • Starts to respond to simple words and phrases, like “No,” “Come here,” and “Want more?”
  • Plays simple games, like peek-a-boo

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Babbles longer strings of sounds (e.g., babababa)
  • Uses sounds and gestures to get and keep attention.
  • Uses gestures like waving bye, reaching for “up,” and shaking head no.
  • Points to objects and shows them to others.
  • Imitates different speech sounds.
  • Says 1 or 2 words (e.g., hidogdadamama, uh-oh)

1 to 2 Years

During their second year, children understand simple directions and questions and begin to use more words.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Points to a few body parts when asked
  • Follows 1-step directions (e.g., "Roll the ball")
  • Responds to simple questions (e.g., “Who’s that?” or “Where’s your hat?”)
  • Listens to simple stories, songs, and rhymes.
  • Points to pictures in a book when named

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Uses new words regularly
  • Uses speech sounds pbmh, and w in words
  • Starts to name pictures in books
  • Asks simple questions (e.g., “what's that?”, “who’s that?”, “where’s doggy?”) 
  • Combines 2 words (e.g., "more apple," "no bed," "mommy book")

2 to 3 Years

Approaching age 3, children will understand concepts like opposites and slightly more complex directions, and can express themselves for most needs.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Understands opposites, like go/stop, big–little, and up/down
  • Follows 2-step directions (e.g., "get the spoon and put it on the table")
  • Understands new words quickly

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Has a word for almost everything
  • Talks about things that are not in the room
  • Uses speech sounds k, g, f, t, d, and n in words
  • Uses words like inon, and under
  • Uses two- or three- words to talk about and ask for things (e.g., "give me water")
  • Is understand by familiar people
  • Asks “Why?”
  • Puts 3 words together to talk about things. May repeat some words and sounds

3 to 4 Years

Three- to four-year-olds comprehend conceptual words and can put four words as well as several sentences together.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Responds when called from another room
  • Understands words for some colors (e.g., red, blue, green)
  • Understands words for some shapes (e.g., circle, square)
  • Understands words for family (e.g., brother, grandmother)

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Answers simple "who", "what", and "where" questions.
  • Says rhyming words (e.g., hat–cat)
  • Uses pronouns (e.g., you, me, we, they)
  • Uses some plural words (e.g., toys, birds, buses)
  • Is understood by most people
  • Asks "when" and "how" questions
  • Puts 4 words together. May make some mistakes (e.g., “I goed to school")
  • Talks about what happened during the day. Uses about 4 sentences at a time.

4 to 5 Years

By around age 5, children can follow longer directions and can express themselves with complex sentences.

Receptive Language (Understanding)

  • Understands words for order (e.g., first, next, last)
  • Understands words for time (e.g., yesterday, today, tomorrow)
  • Follows longer directions (e.g., “put your pajamas on, brush your teeth, and then pick out a book")
  • Follows classroom directions (e.g., “draw a circle on your paper around something you eat")
  • Hears and understands most of what he/she hears at home and in school

Expressive Language (Talking)

  • Says all speech sounds in words. May make mistakes on sounds that are harder to say, (e.g., lsrvzchsh, and th)
  • Responds to “What did you say?”
  • Talks without repeating sounds or words most of the time
  • Names letters and numbers
  • Uses sentences that have more than 1 action word (e.g., jump, play, get). May make some mistakes (e.g., “Zach gots 2 video games, but I got one")
  • Tells a short story
  • Keeps a conversation going
  • Talks in different ways, depending on the listener and place (e.g., may use short sentences with younger children, may talk louder outside than inside)

Red Flags That May Warrant an Evaluation

According to Cashman, there are several red flags that warrant an evaluation from a speech-language pathologist. These include a lack of babbling in babies, disinterest in communicating, a child not having consistent words by 18 months, no word combinations by 24 months, and lack of interest in socializing.

"Delays in expressive language milestones (speaking fewer words than expected), receptive language milestones (understanding fewer words than expected), or delays in social language milestones (not demonstrating age-appropriate norms) are reasons to get an evaluation", says Katsnelson. She also suggests getting an evaluation if a child shows regression in skills, such as saying 20 words one week and not speaking at all the next.

What Parents Can Do to Support Language Development

"The famous linguist Noam Chomsky believed that babies are “hard wired” to learn language from birth, tuning into the sounds, syllables, and words they hear as soon as they are born", says Katsnelson. Given that language is an innate skill, our job then as parents is to provide a rich linguistic environment in which children can best learn.

"The more a parent speaks to their child daily, whether that be during playtime or mealtime, the more that child will learn, understand and use words on a daily basis to communicate their wants and needs," explains Cashman. Reading books together, singing songs, and narrating throughout daily routines at bedtime and bathtime are all great ways to model language and expose your child to vocabulary that is necessary for language development.

Additionally, Katsnelson recommends getting a hearing evaluation if your child is showing delays, in order to rule out any issues with the child's ability to hear and understand speech.

A Word From Verywell

While there seems to be a natural progression in the way children learn language, there is a wide range of what is "normal." Kids are unique and they develop at their own rate. Language milestones are in place to guide parents in knowing what their child should generally be doing at a certain age, and to know if and when to seek professional intervention. An evaluation by a speech-language pathologist is recommended if your child experiences any delays.

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2 Sources
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  1. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Speech and language developmental milestones.

  2. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Developmental norms for speech and language.