In my experience as a Footsteps early childhood teacher, one of the most common worries parents share is about their child’s speech and language development. There can be a big variation in development between children because of environment, genetics, health, and special needs. So what is the expected level of speech and language development, and when should you follow up on a concern?

How do children acquire language?

Language acquisition takes time and practice. Children learn language through natural interaction with caring people in everyday settings. Parents are their children’s best teachers. The rule here is ‘the more, the better’: interact with your child in as many different, engaging, fun situations as possible, so that they realize that language permeates all that we do in all sorts of different ways. Children make “errors” in language such as, the plural of mouse is mouses. This is a natural part of the trial and error process of learning. When children hear the correct word modelled, they should naturally correct themselves in time.

Speech language milestones

General speech language milestones support parents to make assessments about how their child’s language is developing. Specific speech and language skills should be thought of as occurring within a range of time rather than by exact ages.

By the age of one year, your child should;

  • Respond to, look toward, and localise sounds.
  • Respond to own name.
  • Respond to verbal cues such as, wave goodbye.
  • Imitate non speech sounds like laughing or coughing.
  • Imitate speech sounds such as “mama”.
  • Babble and use own jargon.
  • Use tones of pleasure and displeasure.

By the age of two years;

  • Shake and nod to yes/no questions.
  • Follow simple directions.
  • Point to clear pictures in books.
  • Imitate new sounds, animal noises, and simple words.
  • Have a vocabulary of around 50 words.
  • Use gestures, movement, and tone of voice, to communicate.
  • Name pictures and objects when asked, “what is it?”.
  • Name most familiar objects.
  • Verbalise own name.
  • Have over 60% of speech intelligible.

By the age of three years;

  • Understand 300 to 900 words, and verbalise 50 to 500.
  • Identify objects by their use, i.e. “which do we draw with?”
  • Start to identify actions such as, “which is running?”
  • Understand concepts of one, big, little, in, on, and under.
  • Match colours and shapes.
  • Understand “where” and “what” questions.
  • Have a sentence length of around 3 to 4 words.
  • Ask “where”, “why”, “what”, “who” and “why” questions.
  • Ask questions which require yes or no answers.
  • Use adverbs and adjectives.
  • Say full name and sex.
  • Have approximately 70% of speech intelligible.

By the age of four years;

  • Understand between 1000 and 2000 words. Verbalise 500 to 1500 words.
  • Follows a three stage instruction.
  • Name an item when given a category such as, tell me a food.
  • Discriminates in front of and behind, hard and soft, rough and smooth, etc.
  • Imitate sentences of 10-12 syllables.
  • Imitate and use p, b, m, t, d, n, g, h, w, y sounds.
  • Begin to count and name colours.
  • Know and retell waiata, nursery rhymes.
  • Use a logical sequence to retell events.
  • Use plurals and irregular plurals such as,  man/men
  • Gives definitions for common objects, i.e. “what is an apple?”.

Behavioural clues

There are common behaviours that may be signs of potential speech and language difficulties that parents can watch for.

  • Does your child’s speech seem very different from other children. Do strangers have difficulty understanding your child?
  • Is your child easily frustrated with learning and play activities that involve talking to others, listening, or following directions?
  • Does your child seem inattentive to others and not interested in activities or play with others?
  • Does your child appear so challenged by speaking that they become angry, bites, or hits?
  • Does your child point or grab at objects or people and make noises to indicate their choices or responses rather than calling objects or people by their names?
  • Does your child have difficulty following instructions or directions involving one or two steps? Do they follow activities by watching others before trying it themself?

What should you do if you are concerned?

Specific speech and language skills should be thought of as occurring within a range of time rather than by exact ages. Delayed speech or language development is common in childhood. It affects five to ten percent of preschool kids. Children who learn more than one language may be slightly behind their peers in the preschool years. By age five they should have caught up. There are many effective ways to support children with delayed speech and language.

If you’re worried about your child’s language, or the clarity of your child’s speech, talk to your child’s Footsteps kaiako, early childhood teacher, your doctor, or well child provider. Your child’s hearing is likely to be checked as hearing loss is a common reason for delayed speech. A speech-language therapist may be recommended for your child. They check the muscles in your child’s mouth are developing as expected and may give your child speech exercises to practice with missing speech sounds. Group Special Education run classes for parents are another great source of information. Through the use of activities and group discussions, parents learn to create and take advantage of everyday opportunities to improve their child’s communication skills.

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Sue Hunter is mother of 4 boys and has a wealth of early childhood experience including lecturing on the subject. She has a special interest in how trauma and neglect can impact upon children’s learning and development. Sue believes that strong connected families are the building blocks to a healthy society.

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