How much does your 2-year-old really understand?

Everyone has heard of the ‘terrible two’s’ so when my firstborn, Jonah, sailed through the first half of the two’s stage without much fanfare I was very much relieved. But then his sister was born. And we started potty training. His preschool his teacher said that he was ‘squawking’ instead of using his words. Let’s just say I truly understood what it meant when people called it the ‘terrible two’s’; the terrible three’s ensued as well (but I think that deserves a different blog post.)

Now that he is 11 I can look back with fond nostalgia and miss the boy who wanted to cuddle in my lap, sing along with Caillou, and happily would stay by my side for hours at a time. But going through that year was difficult. It was frustrating why he couldn’t seem to follow the simplest of one-step directions, and continue to [poo] in his underwear when I’ve bribed him with a box full of Thomas the Tank Engine trains!

Between ages 2 and 3, your child develops a pretty good understanding of language. Development experts say most 2-year-olds understand at least 200 to 300 words and add as many as 10 new ones to their vocabulary every day. By now, your child may also be able to understand and respond to who, where, and what questions. If you ask him, “Who loves you?” for example, he’ll probably point to you or say “Mommy” or “Daddy.”

The importance of Communication

Communication is a lifelong skill that will enable our children to become society-contributing, fully developed, well-rounded individuals. And we are learning more each day of the vast changes that occur during early childhood, including the development of this skill. According to Ellen Galinksy, author Mind in the Making, communicating is much more than understanding language, speaking, reading, and writing; it is the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how our communications will be understood by others. It is a skill that teachers and employers feel that is most lacking today, Ellen writes.

Catherine Snow, of Harvard University, outlines three effective techniques that her studies have found promote better language and literacy skills in children:

  • Use cognitively engaging talk, such as asking children to consider hypothetical situations
  • Use more complex vocabulary when talking, such as the word enormous to describe an object that is very big
  • Use content-oriented curricula, such as those that engage children in learning about letters and sounds, about the world, and about how to analyze and think


Developing the skill of communicating in preschoolers


Use children’s interests as launching pads for building their communication skills. Whether it is music, animals, or rocket ships, tie these interests into your conversations with children. For example, if you are studying baby animals, you can help children learn to observe, investigate, and communicate like scientists as they explore how different animals live and care for their young. As you think and communicate like a scientist might, you can begin to introduce a more precise set of words to the children, including habitat and environment.


Developing the skill of communicating in children of other ages


  • Infants & Toddlers: Elaborate upon and extend very young children’s communications with you, even if they’re not verbal communications. If a child is babbling or pointing, turn what they are trying to communicate into words: “Where are you pointing? You’re pointing at the fish in the fish tank. Let’s see what the fish are doing!”
  • Early Primary: Tell stories about your life and ask children to tell you stories about their lives. Stories tie us together as families or communities. You can find sources of inspiration for stories by taking children to interesting places in your community (like a park or a bakery) and then have them retell or write about the story of this visit.


Learning to communicate with your 2-year old takes patience, intentionality, and a lot of prayer, but you are developing in them a lifelong skill at a crucial time in their lives that will impact them for the rest of their lives. Looking back on my children’s 2-year-old pictures, I’m not going to lie – I don’t miss the potty training or the tantrums, but I do miss the spontaneity, the sheer joy, and the fire and desire to learn.


*excerpts taken from NAEYC’s Mind in the Making Study Guide

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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