Speech development in pre-school children

A common worry for parents is their child’s speech and language development. Variations in development from one child to another can exist 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?
A common worry for parents is speech and language development in their pre-school children.

Variations in development from one child to another can exist 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 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 and will naturally start to 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.

As a guideline, speech language milestones for children include:

By the age of one year
  • Responds to, looks toward and localises sounds.
  • Responds to their own name.
  • Responds to verbal cues such as, 'wave goodbye'.
  • Imitates non-speech sounds like laughing or coughing.
  • Imitates speech sounds such as 'mama'.
  • Babbles and uses own their jargon.
  • Use tones of pleasure and displeasure.
By the age of two years
  • Shakes and nods to yes/no questions.
  • Follows simple directions.
  • Points to clear pictures in books.
  • Imitates new sounds, animal noises and simple words.
  • Has a vocabulary of around 50 words.
  • Uses gestures, movement and tone of voice to communicate.
  • Names pictures and objects when asked, 'what is it?
  • Names most familiar objects.
  • Verbalises their own name.
  • Has over 60% of speech intelligible.

By the age of three years
  • Understands 300 to 900 words and verbalises 50 to 500.
  • Identifies objects by their use, i.e. 'what do we draw with?'
  • Starts to identify actions such as, 'who is singing?'
  • Understands concepts of one, big, little, in, on and under.
  • Matches colours and shapes.
  • Understands 'where' and 'what' questions.
  • Asks 'where', 'why', 'what', 'who' and 'why' questions.
  • Asks questions that require 'yes' or 'no' answers.
  • Uses adverbs and adjectives.
  • Says full name and sex.
  • Has approximately 70% of speech intelligible.
By the age of four years
  • Understands between 1000 and 2000 words. Verbalises 500 to 1500 words.
  • Follows a three-stage instruction.
  • Is able to name an item when given a category such as, 'tell me a type of food.' 
  • Discriminates in front of and behind, hard and soft, rough and smooth, etc.
  • Imitates sentences of 10-12 syllables.
  • Imitates and use p, b, m, t, d, n, g, h, w, y sounds.
  • Begins to count and name colours.
  • Knows and retells waiata, nursery rhymes.
  • Uses a logical sequence to retell events.
  • Uses plurals and irregular plurals such as man/men
  • Gives definitions for common objects when asked, for example, “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 of the same age?
  • 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 playing 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 pre-school kids.

Bilingual kids may be slightly behind their peers in the pre-school years. By age five they should have caught up.

If you’re worried about your child’s language, or the clarity of your child’s speech, talk to your child’s kaiako, early childhood teacher, your doctor, or well child provider.

There are many effective ways to support children who have delayed speech and language.

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.

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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Source: This article has been written by Creators, a nationwide service offering quality home-based care and education. Creators are passionate about seeing every child’s unique talent being recognized and nurtured.

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