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Thursday, 14 September 2000

Understanding Early Childhood Speech and Language Development: How Is Your Child Doing?

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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This series was written in consultation with Rachel Bromberg, MACCSLP - Speech and Language Therapist

Why Speech and Language Development?

For parents, the area of speech and language development is probably the hardest to evaluate. When evaluating physical development, the process is easier. We know when a child is able to sit, stand, walk or run.

Language development is less clear. My son talks - but does he talk enough? My daughter speaks clearly - but does she speak clearly enough? For this reason, speech and language difficulties are often the hardest for the average parent to detect.

In order to help you understand the area of speech and language development, we at WholeFamily have prepared a series of articles that will help you to better understand your child's development. This series will include the following topics:

  • What does the term "speech and language development" mean?
  • A checklist to help you evaluate your child's progress.
  • An understanding of which professionals to contact if your child may have speech or language difficulties
  • The answers to some commonly asked questions about early childhood speech and language development
  • Activities to do with your child to help stimulate speech and language development.

Our first article is about the basics:


Speech and language are actually two separate areas of development, which can be divided into four separate areas.

SPEECH DEVELOPMENT: Speech development can be divided into articulation and quality of voice.

Articulation refers to a child's ability to produce speech sounds. You might hear professionals using the slang "artic" among themselves to refer to difficulty in producing speech sounds. A child with this difficulty uses the wrong sounds when speaking, often at either the beginning or end of the word and/or sometimes leaves certain sounds out completely. Examples would be a child who says "wabbit" instead of rabbit or " ha" instead of hat. Each specific speech sound normally develops by a certain age. For a two- year-old, the mistakes mentioned above are acceptable and are to be expected. A five- year-old, however, should already be able to say these words correctly.

The term quality of voice refers to how the speech sounds when it comes out. Is it loud, soft, fluid, fast, slow or just right? Of course, all children sometimes speak too loudly, softly, slowly, etc... The questions when evaluating quality of voice is: Does the sound quality of the child's voice interfere with normal everyday activities or make the child's language difficult to understand? Overall, is the quality of the child's voice appropriate for a child of his age?

A term you may hear discussed in connection to speech (both articulation and voice quality) is "oral-motor development." This term relates to the physical make-up of a person's mouth and his ability to use it properly. While this area is not the same as speech development, it is often used in connection with speech, since if a person can not physically use his mouth properly, it affects his ability to speak.

LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT: Language development refers to how your child understands, organizes, speaks and uses words and can be divided into two categories: receptive language and expressive language.

The term receptive language refers to how well your child understands what is said to him. Way before a child can verbally answer a question, he can show that he understands you by following a simple direction or pointing to a specific object. Usually a child can follow simple directions and run to find an object, well before he will start using words.

EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE: The term expressive language refers to your child's ability to express or communicate his thoughts and needs to others. As a child grows, expressive language is used to refer to how well the child uses words; however, this term also refers to gestures or any other non-verbal forms of expression. Sign language, for example is expressive language and does not involve speaking. Pointing to a candy is an appropriate use of expressive language for a one and a half-year-old. For a three-year-old, appropriate expressive language is to ask for a candy by using words.


Here is a tool to help you check up on how your child is doing. Print out the form that corresponds to your child's age and complete it later.

I would suggest starting with the "younger" list in which your child's age appears and then moving on to the "older" list. (If your child is three, then start by checking out the list for ages two to three and then go on to ages three to four. If your child is turning four next week, then you may just want to do the three to four section and work backwards if necessary.)

After using the checklist, note if the tasks your child has difficulty with belong primarily to a specific area of speech and language development. This will help you know what areas to work on with him and may be relevant information to pass on to professionals, if you feel a professional consultation will be necessary.
I will use the following abbreviations:
R= Receptive Language
E= Expressive Language
S = Speech (Note: I will be giving you basic guidelines on which sounds develop by a certain age. Please keep in mind that experts differ on the appropriate ages for the development of specific sounds.)

If your child does not have all of these at the appropriate age - do not worry, children develop at different paces.
If your child has acquired at least some of these skills - everything is probably fine.
If your child does not yet have any of these skills - then still do not worry - although I would then suggest discussing his or her development with the appropriate professionals.

In the next section of this series, I will be giving you a specific list of the professionals you should contact if you are concerned about your child's speech and language development. So print out the appropriate form for your child now and make sure to come back here to go to the next article in this series

Stepping In When Words Fail Him: What Professionals Should I Contact...


Age One Year
Ages 1-2
Ages 2-3
Ages 3-4
Ages 4-5
Ages 5-6


Age One Year


__respond to his own name. R
__understand the words "mommy" and/or "daddy." R
__understand three words other than Mommy or Daddy. R
__use different cries to indicate hunger, pain or discomfort. E
__show pleasure and eagerness with squeals giggles and laughter. E
__ babble spontaneously and in response to others (i.e. ma, ma, ba, ba, ah, ah.) S
__ use gestures to indicate that he or she wants something (i.e. reaching for something.) R
__use one spontaneous word. E
__use the sound made by an object to refer to the object. E ("Ruf" for dog)
__ change his/her voice in terms of pitch and loudness. S
__use some of the following sounds while babbling: m,b,n,d,g,l,w,h,p,t.
(It is hard to discern specific sounds at this age. Just check that you can hear a variety of specific sounds coming out while your child is babbling.) S

General Description: By the time a child reaches one year of age, he has begun to show an awareness of the world around him. He can communicate his likes and dislikes by the use of different forms of crying and gestures and also clearly indicates happiness by cooing or smiling. Your child knows who he and his parents are and has begun to develop the ability to express (non-verbally) his desires. A one- year-old child may or may not have started using real words, but he does babble and use sounds on a regular basis both spontaneously and in response to other people.

Ages One to Two


__understand the names of three toys. R
__understand the names of three food items. R
__understand the names of two items of clothing. R
__understand the names of four animals. R
__know the names of three familiar people or pets other than Mommy, Daddy and him/her self. R
__point to 10-15 familiar objects upon request ("Where is the ball?".) R
__follow simple one-step directions ("come," "give me," "go".) R
__have a vocabulary of at least 15-20 words (by the age of two years.) E
__name five pictures of familiar objects. E
__use "jargon" - sentences which only occasionally include intelligible words. E
(i.e. child says "Ba, na, ma, ba, go, na, na, mommy, ma." The sound is the length of a sentence, but only two words are distinguishable.)
__request actions, objects or people from others by using words (i.e. "up" for pick me up, "cup" for a drink or "mommy" for his mother.) E
__use two word combinations, such as "more drink," "Daddy bye-bye." E
(This skill starts to develop as a child reaches age 18 months to two years.)
__use the following sounds: b,m,p,d,n. S
__imitate mouth, tongue and jaw movements. (oral - motor development- Necessary for the development of proper speech)

General Description: By age two, your child should be showing you that more or less, she understands what is said to her (in simple terms) and recognizes the people she sees regularly. In basic terms, "she knows what is going on." Your child should have some basic words that she understands and can say and is "just beginning" to put those words together. At this point, there should be some discernible words and sounds, but she does not necessarily speak clearly by any definition of the term.

Ages Two to Three


__recognize and enjoy children's songs and storybooks. R
__point to 5 different body parts (without gestures or signs from your end.) R
__answer the question "Where is the ...?" by pointing to familiar objects. R
__appropriately answer "yes" or "no" to questions about her desires. ("Do you want a drink?") R &E
__understand the concept "big" vs. "little" (Answer the question "where is the big ball?") R
__have a fairly large vocabulary (200 words by age 3 years.) Do not try and count, but do check that your child has vocabulary in the basic areas - ten verbs, five adjectives, 30 nouns. If you can easily come up with these, then don't worry. R&E
__understand everything that is said to her within the limits of her daily routine. R
__regularly use two-word sentences in a variety of situations. ("Mommy go," (actions) "my ball" (possession) "no sleep" (express desires) "where Daddy?" (questions.) E
__understand the concept of "my" and "mine." E
__answer the question "what is your name?" and use his name to refer to himself. E
__understand the difference between the words you and I. E
__recognize changes in familiar songs and stories. E
__consistently and spontaneously use three word sentences. E
__repeat up to five word sentences. E

General Description: By age three, a child is able to answer basic questions using at least three and up to five word sentences and has a vocabulary of at least 200 words. As long as the number of words is so large that you can't count and he uses a variety of words from all basic parts of language (objects, actions, descriptions, pronouns - I, you, he etc..), then he is probably doing fine. In short, your child has become a "little person," who talks throughout the day and understands more or less what is said to him.

Ages Three to Four


__listen happily to a story for at least five minutes. - R
__know his/her first and last name. R&E
__follow two-step requests - i.e. give the ball to Daddy and put the cup on the table. R
__answer the question: "Are you a boy or a girl?"R
__correctly answer three questions about him/herself. (How old are you? Do you have a dog?)R&E
__say how common objects are used.( "What do we ride in?" "What do we see with?" "What do we eat with?") R&E
__regularly use four word sentences. E
__ask questions using "who, what happened, what are you doing." E
__ask "why" questions (i.e. "Why are we going to the store?") E
__tell two events in order of occurrence. (First we went to the store and then we went home.) E
__tell you about immediate experiences. (Where did you go? What did you do in school? What did you eat?) E
__consistently use four-word sentences. E
__say complete words. (Does not leave off the beginning or end of the word, i.e "ar" instead of car or "ca" instead of cat) - S

General Description: By age four, a child can tell you what her thoughts and experiences are, in addition to her every day needs and desires. A four- year-old can describe her experiences and will express an interest in her environment by asking questions about what happens around her. While not every sound is pronounced clearly, at this point most people (not just a parent) should be able to understand what she is saying.

Ages Four to Five


__carry out a series of 3 directions (get the cup from the table, give it to Daddy and sit down.) R
__tell a familiar story without pictures for cues. R
__point out absurdities in pictures. (What's missing? ) R
__find a pair of objects on request. (Give me the ball and the cup) R
__use compound sentences. ("I hit the ball and it went into the road.") E
__label five emotions (i.e. happy, sad, angry, scared.) R
__child can guess names of familiar hidden objects with clues (i.e. it's round, you eat it, and it's red - an apple!) R&E
__answer basic questions, such as "What do you do when you're...hungry, sleepy, hurt ? R&E
__know if a sound is loud or soft. R
__tell final word in analogies. ( The lion is big, the mouse is...) (Mommy is a girl, Daddy is a ...) R&E
__answer questions like "what happens if...?" ( i.e. you drop an egg.) R&E
__say the following sounds correctly: m,b,n,t,p,d,k,g,w,h, and vowels. S

General Description: A five-year-old is beginning to acquire complex thinking. He can comment on his environment and answer questions that involve thinking creatively about what usually happens, might happen, and has happened. He knows who he is and what his relationship is to the people around him. A five-year- old child can have a reasonable, intelligible conversation with his family and peers about activities that relate to his daily life.

Ages five to six:


__answer "why" questions with an explanation. ("Why did you hide the ball?")
__point to "most, least, few." - R
__use the words yesterday and tomorrow correctly. R&E
__put together and tell a three to five part sequence story. (know the specific order of events.)
__retell a familiar story. (general narrative)-E
__tell you about daily experiences. (If your child does not do this, consider if you feel he "can't" do so or "won't" do so. Many children do not like to talk about their day.)-E
__know his address and telephone number. - R&E
__ask the meaning of new or unfamiliar words. - R&E
__describe the location or movement of objects using the words "through, away, from, toward, over."
__use irregular plurals. (e.g. mice, teeth)-E
__compare sizes and concepts. (big....biggest, hot...hotter, heavy..heavier)-R&E
__ say the following sounds correctly: sh, ch,l, l blends (e.g. black, fly) - S

General Description: By the time a child reaches age six, she has become a "real person." You can have a meaningful conversation with your six-year-old about past and future events. While she will not necessarily accept your reasoning, she should be capable of understanding your decisions and discussing them. A six-year-old can use analytic thought, meaning she can take in information from her environment and use that information to improve her skills and general knowledge of the world around her.


Last modified on Thursday, 04 April 2013 14:47
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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