Children`s Speech Development

Children’s Speech Development
Patricia Curtis, Speech Therapist.
Children “learn to talk, then talk to learn”. (
Communication is essential to our daily lives. We use it to have our needs met, to
indicate our likes and dislikes, to request information, to refute something, to socialise,
and to establish and maintain relationships.
“The acquisition of a first language is the most complex skill anyone ever learns. And
this task needs to be virtually complete by the time a child reaches school age.”
(Crystal, 1987)
Children learn language predominantly from quality interactions with adults up to the
age of three and from adults and peers from three onwards. The most significant growth
in the connections in the brain that are linked to language development reach a peak
before 12 months of age (as shown in Figure 1 below) and this growth depends largely
on the interactions and experiences the child has received.
“Experts warn that the window to stimulate brain development closes quickly. In the first
three years of life, the brain grows from 25% to 90% of its adult weight. And nearly 50%
of a child’s learning occurs in the first four years of life… Brain development is largely a
function of stimulus. The more stimulus babies and young children get in terms of being
read and talked to, the greater their capacity for language and literacy.”
Figure 1. Human Brain Development: Synapse Formation Dependent on Early Experiences (Shonkoff & Phillips,
“As a baby absorbs new sights, textures, scents and sounds the connections in her
brain that make learning possible multiply and become stronger. If a child does not
use certain brain connections, or does not use them enough, the connections are
simply shed, lost forever.” (Dougherty, 1999)
This knowledge regarding brain connections adds to the increasing body of evidence
around providing education to parents and early years workers on how best to stimulate
the development of children’s communication skills from a very early age.
Language Development
In my training I use the analogy of a tree to explain some of the processes involved in learning
to talk.
The Tree of Language
Speech Sounds
Underlying Skills
Listening / attention
Play skills
The Roots of Language Development – Underlying skills required to be ready to learn to talk
Children, irrespective of which language they are exposed to, need to have the social
skills/motivation to engage with the adults in their lives. Learning occurs through the positive
Interactions, that children have from birth to the age of 3 with the adults in their lives and
then from three with their peers and those adults.
Children need to hear the language around them to learn it. Children who suffer with
recurrent ear infections may also experience a hearing loss, though this is usually temporary.
However recurrent hearing loss at the crucial time in language acquisition can have an impact
on the child’s ability to learn to talk. All children I saw in the UK when I worked there had a
full hearing test before they came to see me. So if you are concerned about a child’s language
development the first step is to rule out any hearing difficulties.
Play is children’s work and through play they learn about the world around them and the
language associated with this world. Children learn when they are having fun so play is a
wonderful learning opportunity. Through play children learn that toys can represent real
items and can be used in a similar way. Language is using sounds to represent the same real
Small babies have a very short attention span and this is expected. As children grow they learn
to attend to you and listen to you for increasing periods of time. This can be a real challenge
for little boys who are driven to explore all around them. If a child is not attending and
listening to the words in his/her environment, we cannot expect him to learn them. All the
above areas are developmental so the child’s skill increases as s/he matures. In a child with
delayed attention and listening skills our initial goal is not that he will be like his peers
immediately, but that he will extend his own skills “one turn at a time”.
The Trunk – the ability to understand
I see parents who assure me that their child understands everything and they may or may not
be right. As communicators with small children we use lots of clues to help children
understand what we say. We might point, show or use context. Children can understand what
the same way we do when we are abroad and being spoken to in a foreign language. We know
if the person talking to us is cross or happy and we can communicate via other means than
words to understand each other. If you say to a child “go the door and get your coat on the
hook we are going shopping” he may well have only understood the word “coat” as when he
sees you with your coat and bag he will assume he is coming also and go get his coat. If you
are worried about a child’s comprehension/understanding I would always advise a referral to
a speech therapist.
The Branches – Expressive Language
Children generally understand before they speak and understand more than they say as they
are developing language. Children generally learn first words from 12mths and by 18mths are
expected to have 6 – 20 single words, be joining two words together by 2 and speaking in
short sentences by 3 years of age. Children need to hear a new word 9 times in context and
say it three times for themselves, again in context before the word is added to their language
store. So when you come across a new word with a child, you should share lots of information
about that word – what is means, what words are used in association and what words sound
like it or begin with the same sound? If you talk enough about the word you will have no
trouble saying it 9 times and then stop and listen to the child as they tell you about the word.
Try to avoid using words like “thing/that/there/it/doing” as all these are “empty”.
The meaning is shared by both of you pointing or looking at the same thing in the immediate
context. How can a child learn real words if we don’t use them?
The Leaves – Speech Sounds
The most obvious difficulty in talking is the ability to speak clearly. Again children learn certain
sounds first and “harder” sounds later. To begin with only immediate family and Childminders
can understand them but by the age of three to three and a half, they should be understood
by unfamiliar adults. If you are concerned about the clarity of a child’s speech, you should
refer to a speech therapist as s/he has the skills to determine the presence and nature of this
type of difficulty. Most children I see do not have a physical difficulty saying the words but
rather have miss-learned the sounds we use in English and therefore do not use the ones they
have not stored.
There is a wealth of information available on the internet around language learning. I am
sharing just a few quality websites for more information, but more importantly to access ideas
and resources that you could use in your homes with any child. I always say my own children
had intensive speech therapy, not because they had a language or speech problem but I knew
that playing certain games and speaking to them in a certain way would give their language
learning a “spurt” and I could make the most of those magical preschool years when they are
“wired” to learn. So don’t look at these websites only if you are concerned about a particular
child, rather read all about how all children learn to communicate and fun ways you can help
1. The Communication Trust -
This is an organisation that brings together information from all the UK sites and charities that
are supporting children’s communication development. I would advise exploring the whole
site but in particular the resources for parents and practitioners. There is a lot of information
on “normal” language development – ages and stages but more importantly lots of ideas and
resources to use with children learning to talk.
2. Help my Kid learn -
This is an Irish website with lots of ideas of activities for children sorted by age.
3. The Language Garden -
This is another Irish site, developed by a speech and language therapist in Ballyfermot. It is
for preschool children from about the age of three. It is full of ideas to help children with all
areas of language development, including speech which is an added bonus. You click on free
resources to download the activity sheets.
Patricia Curtis, Apley Speech and Language Therapy Services