Are you worried that your child is a late talker? That they don’t know as many words as other children their age, or can’t put the words together into a phrase? This post tells you what you can do!
What is ‘normal’?
Before we start today we need to ask the question, in terms of language development, what is ‘normal’?
Firstly, we must keep in mind that there needs to be a fairly wide range to what is considered normal. Comparing your own child directly with another might not be reassuring, and we shouldn’t look around at playgroup, for example, and start rating our kids by intelligence or the number of friends they have, or their ability to paint a masterpiece. Children develop differently, and that’s OK.
If we do have concerns we should visit our doctor or other health professional and ask for their opinion. Early intervention is the very best way of helping struggling children in the long term, so I’m not saying ignore developmental delay.
But I am suggesting that sometimes we worry too much, especially if we’re doing the comparison thing! My first daughter spoke in full sentences from a very young age, but my second daughter took much, much longer. We’re talking years longer! There would have been no point getting anxious about her development because they were two very different children with different personalities and gifts. They’re grown now, and my first daughter communicates really well through writing and my second daughter communicates powerfully through her art and music. There’s no difference in their understanding and expression of language, just in how it’s ended up being channelled.
3 to 12 months
When talking about language development, the first year is very important. It’s the time when the foundation is being laid so the stronger we can make it, the better. We want to encourage them to make sounds, cooing and babbling and gesturing. They may start to form their first words at around 12 months old.
12 to 18 months
From 12 to 18 months the first words start popping up and they begin adding to the vocabulary. They can understand ‘no,’ but may not obey! If your child isn’t babbling or using gestures by 12 months then talk to your doctor.
18 months to 2 years
From 18 months to 2 years children start to put 2 words together to make a kind of sentence. They should understand most of what you say, and you’ll probably understand them. If your child doesn’t have any words at 18 months, then see your doctor.
2 to 3 years
From 2-3 years children start using longer, more complex sentences, and their pronunciation is getting better. They can play and talk at the same time, and strangers can probably understand much of what a 3 year old is saying.
3 to 5 years
From 3-5 we get longer and more complex conversations. They’ll want to talk about lots of different things and they’ll learn many more words. They might make up funny stories and will use better grammar.
For the first three years children understand a lot more than they can say. This is why it’s so important for us to be interacting and chatting face to face with our young children even if we feel a bit silly or that it’s a waste of our very limited time.
Language development is not just about learning to say individual words, it helps children express what they need or what they feel. It encourages thinking and problem solving and helps them make friends and build relationships.
What’s the problem?
When a child is having difficulty developing language skills it can mean:
- They’re having trouble understanding what is being said to them, which we call receptive language.
- They can’t find the words to express their own thoughts and feelings, which we call expressive language, or
- A combination of both, where there’s some disconnect between what’s coming in and what’s able to go out.
What’s a late talker?
If we talk about childhood development between the ages of 2 and 4, having difficulty with language is one of the most reported problems, affecting up to 20% of children. Late talking is one of these issues.
Researchers have used assessment tools to decide what kind of scale the late talker is on. But it boils down to this.
Late talkers are children who at 2 years of age:
- have less than 50 words in their vocabulary
- do not combine words to make a phrase, or
- are sitting in the bottom 10% after using the assessment tool
For your information the study found the average child used 261 words, the girls’ average being 288 words and the boys’ 235 words.
So should we panic if our child is deemed to be officially late?
At 2 years of age, 19% of children are late talkers, but when they reach 4 years of age ¾ of those are now considered typical with the remaining 1/4, or 5% of all children having longer term difficulties.
Of the 81% of typically talking 2 year olds, most will progress without a problem, but again, similar numbers of children will show difficulties at 4 years of age.
So having a late talker does not mean we have to rush out and start engaging therapists. We will want to keep an eye on it, and certainly have our child’s hearing tested to make sure that’s not a problem, but we shouldn’t be worrying just yet!
The talking advantage
Having said that, it’s important to be encouraging language development as much as we can, and of course we’re going to feel that more keenly if our children are slow to speak. We know that when a young child is able to communicate effectively they have improved social interactions, greater vocabulary, they become better readers, they’re more ready for school and the increased ability to communicate helps prevent problem behaviours.
3 ways to help the late talker
Research has shown that there are 3 very easy ways to encourage your child’s language skills to help with both receptive and expressive language. That is, to help them understand what others are saying AND to help them express what they’re feeling.
Young children love to imitate people around them, and they learn a lot by doing it. Learning language is no different. When they imitate the words they hear, and then receive instant positive feedback such as a laugh, or a hug, or more chatter, it encourages children to do it again and again. They are self-motivated to imitate because it makes them feel good.
Eventually, after hundreds of repetitions, they begin to assign meaning to individual words and can start to use them independently. So feel free to use lots of words with your child, or the children in your care, and if they speak go ahead and imitate that word so that it becomes a kind of early dialogue, a private chat between you and your child, or the child in your care.
If they are pronouncing words incorrectly, repeat them back correctly so they can hear how it’s supposed to sound. If they’re using incorrect grammar, say it back more clearly and with the correct grammar. Not with the attitude of saying ‘you’re wrong,’ just as a gentle re-phrasing, so they’re hearing the correct version. This way they’ll keep adjusting the way they say a word or phrase until it matches what they’re hearing.
B) Responsive, open-ended questions
This is when we see how our children are engaged and we ask them questions about it. Is Tommy playing with a toy truck? Ask him what colour it is, how fast it goes, if it can fly, who likes to drive it and so on.
We want to make them open-ended questions whenever possible so that children are encouraged to say more than ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ so they have to engage more than just by nodding or shaking their heads. It can also help lengthen the engagement so that it’s not just 1 question, 1 answer and stop. It becomes question, answer, question, answer, clarification, answer. Over time, this gives children a huge advantage because they get SO much practice and clarification that they can’t help but improve.
This means using question words: what, who, where, how and why. What is this game you’re playing? How many colours are you going to use in this picture? Why is Cinderella sleeping in front of the fire? How big is your sandcastle going to be?
We might not get an immediate response to our question, and that’s OK. We need to be comfortable with pausing to give children time to either think about what we’re asking, or to think about what words they want to use to respond. If they still don’t answer it’s OK to fill in the answer yourself. Watch their body language for clues on how they’re feeling or what they might like to say.
For little ones who are having trouble learning language we might need to give extra support by giving options, such as, ‘Where would your doll like to sit? On the floor or on the chair?’
We can also provide lead-in cues so children aren’t stumbling over having to form a sentence and can just concentrate on a key word. For example, ‘Where is the ugly duckling? He’s swimming in the _____.’
Expansion means repeating what your child says and then adding new information. For example, if Mary points out the window and says ‘car,’ we might say, ‘yes, a bright yellow car,’ or ‘that’s a very fast car.’ If Leo walks to the fridge and says ‘drink,’ we might say, ‘may I have a drink, please?’ to model the question.
Apparently, making these kind of expansive comments regularly leads to the greatest improvement in a child’s language between the ages of 2 and 3.
Not only are we constantly providing more information, we’re showing our child we care about them and what they think, as well as giving them many more opportunities to hear and express language.
And this has nothing to do with culture or race, wealth or poverty, it’s just a matter of being intentional about the way we interact with our children. Often this is instinctive, chatting with our children even when they can’t express themselves well. But there are plenty of times when exhaustion or impatience or long work hours robs us of this precious time, or makes us too tired, or too busy to give our youngest children the time they need. If we work in childcare, we can also find ourselves being too busy to stop and have these individual conversations, or most of our attention is being taken up by a small number of demanding children so that we miss precious opportunities with our quieter ones. So we have to be intentional about it.
And as an aside, technology such as iPads and TV are not an effective way to give our children an improved vocabulary or improved understanding at this age. It’s the give and take, the body language, the conversation, the back and forth that happens when we interact face to face that really helps children’s understanding and communication skills improve.
Whenever we’re with our children, whether at play, while we’re tidying up, driving in the car, reading a book together, grocery shopping or snack time, it’s always a good time to imitate, to ask questions and to expand on what our children are saying.
Being a late talker does not mean your child is going to have long-term difficulties with language. But it’s a great idea, as it is with all children, to really be intentional about chatting with your child, exposing them to songs, poems, books and conversation.
- Imitate your child’s words, and encourage them to imitate you.
- Use open-ended questions: what, where, why, how, who and when to give your child the opportunity to respond in many different ways, and to encourage the back and forth nature of conversation.
- And most importantly, constantly expand on what your child is saying, speak more, use a greater variety of words and let them know you value who they are and what they have to say.
Community Paediatric Review. August 2015. Language Development. Vol 23. No. 3
Dale Walker et.al. 2009. Strategies for Promoting Communication and Language of Infants and Toddlers. University of Kansas.
RaisingChildren.net.au. Language Development: An Amazing Journey
Leave a comment or review
If you’ve enjoyed this episode it would help if you went to iTunes to submit a rating and review.
Thank you for joining me to learn a little more about early childhood research, and I wish you happy teaching and learning.
If you’re looking for more education podcasts to listen to pop over to The Education Podcast Network. I listened to a really interesting episode the other day on whether research says we should ‘Redshirt’ our boys in Kindergarten. You can find it at The Cult of Pedagogy.
- #0 The Early Childhood Research Podcast: An Introduction
- #1 Healthy Eating in Young Children
- #2 Developing Pre-Writing Skills
- #3 Dealing with Bullying: 10 Proven Strategies
- #4 School Readiness through Music
- #5 What are the Rights of a Child?
- #6 Does Movement Improve Learning Outcomes?
- #7 How to Communicate Effectively about Childhood Development
- #8 Anger Management: How to Calm an Angry Child
- #9 Environmental Protection for Kids
- #10 Essential Addition Strategies for Young Children
- #11 Loving and Teaching Children with Autism: Part 1
- #12 Loving and Teaching Children with Autism: Part 2
- #13 School Readiness for Children, Families, Teachers and Schools