Information On a Child’s Speech and Language Development

What are speech and language skills? 
DSCF0294crop Gwyn and Emma chalk boardSpeech refers to how sounds are made or articulated. Children who have difficulty producing sounds correctly may have unclear speech which makes them difficult to understand.

Language refers to the ability to understand what others are saying (receptive language) and the ability to put words together to share their ideas (expressive language). Children who have language disorders do not understand or produce language at the expected age levels. They usually have delays in the mastery of language skills across languages. Some children with speech and language impairments may not begin to talk until their third or fourth year.

Speech and language difficulties could be indicative of other developmental disorders E.g. Autism, global developmental delay, central auditory processing disorders. It is therefore important that the child is followed up or seen by a developmental paediatrician who would then monitor the child’s overall developmental milestones.


How does a child develop speech and language?
From birth to the first 6 years of life, a child is acquiring speech and language skills at an exponential rate. These skills are best developed through interaction and consistent exposure with the speech and language of others around them. Before the child utters his/her first word, the child is learning the rules and patterns of language and how adults use it to communicate.

They pick up speech and language through day to day experiences. Children need to understand spoken language before they can use it. If these critical periods are allowed to pass without exposure to interaction and language, this may result in a lag in the speech and language milestones.

Language and learning go hand in hand and if a child has a speech and language difficulty, this may result in learning difficulties and difficulties in meeting academic demands as a child enters school.


What are some signs of language delay/disorder in a preschool and school-aged child?
DSCF1341 Gwyn and Emma orderingEvery child who has a language disorder is different. For a child with a language disorder, the language difficulties he/she faces manifest themselves across all languages (i.e. first and second language). Here are some signs that a child with language disorders may have:

  • Difficulty understanding and answering questions
  • Difficulty taking turns in conversation
  • Does not appear to be listening
  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Has Limited vocabulary
  • Stories are disjointed
  • Inability to come to the point.
  • Difficulty relaying a message
  • Sentences are filled with grammatical errors
  • Sentences are short and simple. The child usually has difficulty constructing longer, more complex sentences
  • Scripted speech (memorised chunks) which may be used incorrectly.
  • Difficulty holding a conversation


Should I wait to see if my child catches up?
It is difficult to tell who will and who won’t catch up to the language milestones. While some children catch up, there are others that don’t. Studies have shown that children who continue to lag in their language milestones have persistent language difficulties as well as difficulties with reading and writing as they enter formal schooling.

It is commonly said that boys generally talk later than girls. However, these differences are only in terms of a few months. Children do develop at their own pace to some extent but there are certain milestones which should be reached by a certain age. There is a normal range in which children acquire certain language milestones. Don’t assume that the lag is perfectly normal.


What are some language milestones?
DSCF0298 Emma writing chalkboardHere are some important language milestones:

If the child has not yet reached these milestones, it is important to be seek out advice from a speech therapist.

  • 18 months: should be able to use at least 20 words including different type of words e.g. things (“car”, “bear”, “milk”), actions (“go”, “eat”). Position (“up”, “down”), description (“cold”, “smelly”), social words (“bye”, “no”)
  • 24 months: should use 100 words and starts to combine words. The combined words should be spontaneous and not memorised chunks (e.g. “thank you”, “I want”). Examples of spontaneously generated combinations are “hands dirty”, “car fall”, “bear gone”

Useful website for milestones:


What should I do if my child’s speech or language appears to be delayed?
Seek advice from your child’s paediatrician if you have any concerns. He/ She may refer you to a speech therapist, who is trained to evaluate and treat speech or language disorders.


What to expect of speech therapy?
The speech therapist will assess the child’s speech and language skills through observations made from interaction and play. Formal test/assessments may also be used to evaluate the child’s speech and language skills. Prior to the speech therapy assessment, it is recommended that the child have their hearing test done. This is because hearing is crucial to speech and language development.

The speech therapist may suggest strategies and activities to do at home to stimulate the child’s speech and language development. For children with speech and language difficulties, speech therapy generally involves pursuing the language milestones and bridging the child’s communication difficulties to their potential.