We sometimes get conflicting reports on what our children should be doing at a given age–especially when it comes to language and communication. Your Mom says you were talking in full sentences at one (you’re her little genius). The pediatrician says “give it 6 more months” anytime you bring up a concern. Then there’s Google. And WebMD (who thinks we all have an obscure fungal disease from the Nile river).
This post may just insert another voice in your head and bring more confusion (sorry). Hopefully it either gives you peace of mind or prompts you to talk with someone about your concerns. Listed below, you’ll find important speech and language skills and at what age you should see those skills develop. First, let’s go over some basics you’ll need to get the most out of that information.
Let’s Cover the Basics
Language and speech are actually two different things:
“Speech” refers to the physical means of communication. It includes 3 different areas: articulation, voice, and fluency.
Articulation is when our articulators (tongue, lips, teeth, etc.) produce the sounds we understand to make up words and sentences. When you can’t understand your child’s speech, the issue is probably with her articulation.
Voice involves using our vocal cords to breath and produce sound. Without our vocal cords, we wouldn’t be able to make different speech sounds. Some issues here may be a hoarse or harsh vocal quality or a breathy, quiet vocal quality.
Fluency involves the “smoothness” or rhythm of speech. Stuttering is when a person does not have fluent speech.
I like ASHA’s (American Speech and Hearing Association) definition of language:
“Language is made up of socially acceptable rules that include the following:
- What words mean (e.g., “star” can refer to a bright object in the night sky or a celebrity)
- How to make new words (e.g., friend, friendly, unfriendly)
- How to put words together (e.g., “Peg walked to the new store” rather than “Peg walk store new”)
- What word combinations are best in what situations (“Would you mind moving your foot?” could quickly change to “Get off my foot, please!” if the first request did not produce results)“
Breaking that down even further, you have Expressive Language (how we communicate with others) and Receptive Language (how we understand what we hear). The skills listed below will be split into these 2 categories.
A little note: Some of the skills listed below are like the scaffolding construction crews use for buildings. There must be a bottom level to build the second level, and the second level must be secure to build the third, and so on. I’ll put asterisks (**) by those skills needed for “scaffolding.” You’ll want to keep an eye out for these and work toward developing these in particular.
Skills By Age
*These skills will develop during the ages listed and are expected to be mastered by the end of that age range.
Birth – 3 months:
Congrats on your sweet little one! I know Baby is beautiful and precious and all the good things.
For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Psalm 139:13
That verse has always sounded a little graphic to me, but it’s so insanely amazing that God knew your child before she was created. God put everything in your baby’s little body together to be the exact person she is. He knows this may be hard to process if your little one was born with medical issues (or develops developmental issues later), but He’s with you through it! (Joshua 1:9)
The most important thing for your baby at this age is to become aware of her surroundings and begin recognizing her primary caregivers (Mom, Dad, grandparents). Be on the lookout for signs your baby has difficulty hearing, even if your baby passed the newborn hearing screening. They could have hearing loss (usually temporary) caused by ear infections, which would greatly impact development as she grows.
4 – 6 Months:
Hopefully your baby is growing more aware of you and her surroundings. You may see their little personalities start to show at this age, which is so fun. There should be a decent amount of babbling. If you’re not seeing that, make sure you’re talking to and around your baby often. She needs to hear speech and language to learn it!
Your baby should begin developing basic imitation skills. For example, I have a friend who’s baby started giving high five’s at this age. While I know this little girl will be gorgeous and intelligent, she doesn’t know that she’s giving a high five. She just sees Mom or Dad raising a hand and I’m sure they’ve taken her little hand to model the right movement. She’s learned to imitate this motion over time.
7 Months – 1 Year:
You’ve probably been thinking “where did the time go” quite a bit lately. Your little one is almost a whole year old! This birthday is a big marker for development because many of the skills developed here are very important for the development of later skills. So, there are several things for which to be on the lookout.
In regards to understanding and hearing, your child should start recognizing familiar items by name. This may mean they look at their cup when you say “cup” or they smile at the dog when you say “dog.” It’s also important that they have learned to follow some simple directions like “come here.” Keep in mind, this means they are able to follow these directions, not that they are always willing to do so!
Your child should be communicating by using gestures. They may bring you their cup when it’s empty or wave hello/bye-bye to adults. They are learning that actions (and eventually words) have the ability to give them power over their environment. That’s what communication is, after all. A person having the ability to interact with their environment and get their needs met. You should start hearing more and more sounds that are “speech like.” By their first birthday, kiddos usually have a few words. These words are usually related to their favorite things–cup, dog, juice, eat.
A very important skill that should continue developing during this stage is the ability to imitate actions and sounds (may or may not be speech sounds). Imitation is critical for development of language. This is probably the most common skill I see missing in my Early Intervention clients who are not yet talking at 2-years-old. If you’re not seeing this imitation skill now, definitely start working on it by showing them how to imitate. When they make silly faces, you make the same silly face. When they clap, you clap. Most importantly, when they make sounds, you say those same sounds.
If your child’s first birthday passes without you hearing their first words, there are a few things you can do. There’s not enough room in those post to go over those things, but keep an eye out for a follow up post detailing practical steps to help develop your child’s language.
1 – 2 Years:
This is an important year for development. Your child should be learning to follow slightly more difficult directions. They should go get their teddy bear if you say “where’s your bear” or bring you the cup they’re holding if you say “bring me your cup.” Again, this has nothing to do with that sweet stubbornness that makes them selectively follow directions. I’m talking about having the ability to follow very basic, 1-step directions like the examples listed above.
A child should have between 50 and 100 words by the time they turn two-years-old. Your child may be a bit delayed if she has close to 50 words (maybe 30-40). Give it another month or two to see if she starts using more words. If your child turns 2 and only has a handful of words, you’ll want to talk to your pediatrician about that or contact a speech therapist in your area. Your child may be eligible for Early Intervention. If you’re not familiar with this program or would like more information, check out this blog post where I give you an overview. Keep your eyes open for another blog post to give you some ideas of how to help at home.
Like I mentioned in the last section, imitation is an important skill. If you’re not seeing any signs of imitation while your child is one-year-old, hit this skill hard. See above section for a few ideas on introducing imitation.
2 – 3 Years:
Oh, boy. I bet you have your hands full. You have a roaming, destructive toddler on your hands. Even if your kiddo has medical issues or a developmental disorder, you’re probably noticing a little more attitude (whether or not they are verbal). I know I said this last time, but the age of 2 is a huge year for language development. For those kids who seem typically developing, this is usually when parents start noticing issues with communication. Kids with special needs like Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy are probably already receiving services by this point. This is also the time when parents may see signs of autism and become concerned.
Talk to your pediatrician or contact a speech therapist in your area for more information or to schedule an evaluation. Look for a blog post in the near future to give you ideas on what to talk about with the doctor.
By the time your child is 3, they should be talking your head off. Her vocabulary size should be around 200 words. She should have a word for just about everything and be able to get all her wants and needs met by using 1-2 word phrases. Familiar listeners like Mom, Dad, grandparents, or siblings should understand her speech most of the time. It’s okay if people who aren’t around your child very often have trouble understanding her speech. You should notice a large representation of both nouns and verbs.
She should understand words like “big” and “little.” She may ask for a “big” piece of cake or the “little” bug. Following directions that involve more than one step should be easier. She should be able to pick up her shoes and put them in her room when asked (even though she may need a few repetitions to actually do it).
3 – 4 Years:
So, your child should be doing lots of things by the time she turns 4. You notice I even had to make the font smaller in the “talking/communication” section below to make it all fit. Kids should be telling you about things that happened when you weren’t there (or if you were there and they want to talk about it again). She may say “I saw a dog at Nana’s house” or “Papaw built a tower” after staying with the grandparents. These little “stories” may not always make sense, but your child now has enough language to fill you in on parts of her day.
She should be answering and asking yes/no questions like “do you want to watch Little Mermaid” (yes, obviously). Your child may ask “can I have more” after she’s eaten all her goldfish crackers. Three-year-olds should talk about things that interest them. They may tell you their favorite Ninja Turtle or character from Bubble Guppies and can carry on a basic conversation about that character. Your child may say she’s “mad” when she doesn’t get more cookies.
She may need to be evaluated by a speech therapist if you aren’t noticing many of the skills listed in the chart below. There may also be preschool services available through your local school system. Click here to find out more about that.
4 – 5 Years:
This is the last age range we’ll cover here. Most of the basic skills a child needs to successfully develop language skills are achieved by age 5. Children should be able to participate in a back and forth conversation by now and can give direct requests with a reason. For example, they can hold their own with siblings by saying things like “give that back, it’s mine.” They can tell stories and may even make up stories if they’re the creative type.
Five-year-olds should have no trouble answering age appropriate questions and should be learning information through listening. That’s why you may notice preschool programs become more structured and intentional once a child is 4 or 5. They may talk about how they “hope” they get a bike for Christmas or they “wish” they could go to a friend’s birthday party.
And there you have it! Comment below with questions, concerns, or any suggestions you may have.
Also, feel free to give Expressions a call if you’re in the Birmingham area and have concerns about your child’s speech or language skills.