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Development of Speech and Language

Toddler and mom laugh together
It is helpful to know the usual developmental stages a child goes through when learning speech and language. Keep in mind that these stages are ranges, and the ranges are approximate. Individual babies, toddlers, and children achieve different skills at different times within the range. Some characteristic features of language development are listed below for each developmental stage.

Language is generally divided in to two categories: receptive and expressive. Receptive language is essentially understanding the expressions and words of others. Children begin to develop this skill first. Expressive language is the child’s ability to express himself. As children improve their language skills, they tend to understand more than they can say. In other words, their receptive language is almost always better than their expressive language.

It should be noted that children born prematurely are often late to speak.

Eight to 13 months

  • points at objects he wants
  • shakes head to indicate “no”
  • waves good-bye
  • uses sounds as if they were words
  • uses jargon
  • imitates adult’s sounds

12 to 18 months

  • begins to develop a receptive vocabulary of words he understands, for example, he is able to point to objects when named by an adult
  • understands a number of single words and short phrases
  • uses approximately 10 to 20 words for objects

18 to 24 months

  • understands simple questions and commands
  • begins to combine two words to form a sentence
  • the child’s expressive vocabulary, or the words he uses when speaking, increases to about 200 words
  • begins to use negatives: “no juice”

24 to 36 months

During this period, your child will begin to use three-word sentences. His sentences will increase in length over this period. His grammar will become more precise. Here are a few other milestones:

  • uses prepositions such as “in” and “on”
  • adds “ing” to verbs: “go” becomes “going”
  • auxiliary verbs added: “He can play”
  • adds “s” to words to indicate more than one: “dogs”
  • begins to add “a” and “the” to sentences
  • learns to use pronouns, negatives, and conjunctions in the middle of sentences: “he,” “can’t,” “and”

Your child will also begin to use language for more complex purposes:

  • understands many concepts: in/out; big/little; go/stop; animals; toys; top/bottom
  • follows two-part directions: “get your coat and mitts”
  • follows simple stories in books
  • begins to ask “why?”
  • becomes a story teller
  • can say the following sounds: h, p, m, d, and k
  • the child’s speech is 75% to 100% intelligible

Three to five years

Now your child will understand most of what is being said to him. His sentences and stories will become more complex. His conversational skills will improve.   He will understand how to get someone’s attention to begin a conversation and how to take turns in a conversation. His vocabulary will grow from about 1000 words at three years of age to 5000 or more words by five years of age.

At age three, 75% of what a child says should be understandable to a complete stranger.

His grammar will be come more complex, for example: 

  • links ideas in sentences using “and,” “because,” “what,” “when,” “but,” “that,” “if,” “so”
  • pronouns used correctly: I, she, he, her, him, me, mine, they
  • reverses order of words to ask questions: “What is he doing?” as opposed to “What he is doing?”
  • auxiliary verbs used in questions: “Is he sick?”
  • uses more advanced forms of negatives: “didn’t”
  • overgeneralizes some rules: “I runned”; “two gooses”

Between three and five years, your child’s ability to pronounce letters and blended letters will grow. Children are able to produce the following specific sounds:

  • at three years: w, b, t, f, g, ng, n
  • at four years: l, sh, ch, s, j
  • at five years: z, r

Virginia  Frisk, Ph.D., C. Psych

10/31/2009




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