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At this age, it's more important to focus on how your preschooler uses words rather than the number of words he says. That said, as a rough guide, at age 3 your child should have a vocabulary of around 500 words, with 1,200 words or more at his disposal by age 4. However, preschoolers range widely in the number of words that they use.
Since at this age it is virtually impossible to keep track of the number of words your child uses, you'll want to look for other signs that may indicate he has a vocabulary weakness. Some red flags include:
• Crying, hitting, or "acting out" instead of explaining a problem or feeling in words
• Using gestures and sound effects instead of talking
• Calling objects by a name he's made up even though he's capable of saying the right word (this is more likely in a 3-year-old than a child who is 4)
Assuming that your preschooler's hearing is fine, you can do a lot to improve his vocabulary. Talk with your child about everything — what you're eating for breakfast, what you see at the park, what toys he's playing with. Explain, discuss, and answer questions with patience and clarity. Try to be precise in your own use of language, and use new words over and over in many different contexts. For instance, practice describing how people look, using specific clothing names, such as skirt, jumper, overalls, and sweater, instead of dress, pants, and shirt. Make a picture book together, using photos you have cut out of magazines and catalogs, and sit with your child as he practices naming what he sees. Offer choices when trying to encourage descriptive language. For instance, say, "Nikolas, does that orange taste sweet or salty?" And, of course, read stories out loud to your child and chat about them together.
If, after trying these techniques for a few months, you don't notice any improvement in your child's speech, talk with his pediatrician, or, if he's in preschool, with his teacher. His school may be able to refer you to an early intervention speech and language program (usually coordinated through the county or public school system) that will provide a free speech and language screening. Or his doctor can refer you to a private speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.