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Speech-Language Development: How do I know if My Child is Delayed?

You have heard the phrase, “Don’t compare your child to other children!” In some cases this is good advice. You should not be comparing your child to an overly precocious child who is above average in speech and language development. You know the child – the little girl in your son’s preschool who started talking in 8 word sentences before she turned two! But how do you know if your child is delayed?

The following charts outline a few key speech and language milestones and their corresponding age of expected acquisition. You can compare your child to these indicators to help give you an idea of how your child is developing. Of course the best way to determine whether or not your child has a speech or language delay is to have a Speech-Language Pathologist do an assessment.

How Does a Speech-Language Pathologist Determine if My Child is Delayed?

A Speech-Language Pathologist determines whether or not your child has a delay in their speech or language development by comparing your child to normative data. Normative data is created by taking a very large group of children and determining what 80% of that sample size is able to do – at that specific age. During an assessment, a Speech-Language Pathologist will determine what level your child is at with their speech and language skills and then compare his/her level with the normative data for your child’s age group. If your child is showing a delay (falling below or outside of the average ranges) you then know that your child is delayed.

What is the difference between a speech delay and a language delay?

A Speech-Language Pathologist differentiates between speech and language delays. What is the difference? To really oversimplify things, you can think of the comparison as: speech = motor, language = cognition. Speech refers to the physical movements of the muscles used to talk. Language refers to the cognitive aspects of “knowing” the rules of grammar, storing vocabulary, understanding concepts, directions etc. Generally speaking, speech delays are often quicker to “fix” in therapy than language delays; however, there are always exceptions.

Speech Delays – When not to Wait and See

During the first 6 years, there is some variability in the order of sound acquisition. For example, most children start to develop consonant blends by the age of 4; however for some children, this does not develop until closer to 5 ½. At times, a Speech-Language Pathologist may advise parents to wait before treating speech sound errors in order to give the child time to mature and develop the sound on their own. The following chart shows speech sounds and their corresponding age of acquisition for which therapy would be recommended and we would not advise you to continue to “wait and see”.

Speech Sounds and Age of Acquisition

One year old Consonants are more difficult to produce motorically than vowels.  We hear a lot of vowel sounds when infants are starting to babble.  The first consonants to develop are usually lip sounds, such as b, p, and m.  We would want to hear a lot of these types of consonants at the one year mark.
Two year old By this age, we expect to hear very clearly defined sounds that require the tip of the tongue (e.g., t, d, n).
Three year old At 3, children should be using the back of the tongue to produce the sounds:  k, c, and g.  At this age, we can also start to determine a delay based on overall intelligibility.  A 3 yr old should be understandable to familiar listeners over 80% of the time, and to unfamiliar listeners over 50% of the time.
Four year old By age 4, a child should have their s, z, f, v, y and l sounds.  The 4 year old should be easily understood by an unfamiliar listener 90% of the time.
Five year old A 5 year old should have or be in the process of acquiring sounds like ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘j’.
Six year old The last sounds to master are often the ‘r’, ‘th’ and consonant blends (e.g., snow, fly).
Seven year old A 7 year old should have NO error sounds.  All sounds should be acquired and mastered by the age of 7.

When your child can make all the right sounds, but is still difficult to understand

There are times when a child is difficult to understand, yet seems to have all his/her speech sounds. In these cases, the child is struggling with the connected flow of speech. These children may be able to make all their sounds in isolation; however, when placed in the context of connected speech, the motoric demands are too high and there is a breakdown. These children are extremely difficult to understand as there are no clear word boundaries. A Speech-Language Pathologist can improve speech clarity with therapy which focuses on hierarchical training of the sounds into connected speech.

Language Delays

There are two components to language development: expressive language (words that a child is producing or saying) and receptive language (words and phrases that a child understands).

Although there is a lot of variability in language acquisition norms (just as there was in speech), the variability starts to decrease dramatically by 24 months. If your child is 2 years old or older and is showing a delay, intervention is highly recommended at that point. Before the age of 2, there is so much variability in the norms, that the advice to wait and see is still practical.

Expressive Language Milestones

(How many words should my child be able to say by what age)

12 months 1-3 spoken words (e.g., mama, dada, hi, or bye).  First words are often high frequency words which the child hears a lot (hi, bye), words with lip sounds (‘b’, ‘m’, or ‘p’) and personally relevant (e.g., mama).
18 months 10-20 spoken words as a minimum.  Often these words are approximations of a real word.  For example, an 18 month old may say “ba” for banana, and “ba” for bottle.  That would still be considered two words as long as those two words are consistently labeled in that way.
18 – 24 month range I want to highlight this age range as there will never be another period of time in which your child’s speech and language will develop more rapidly.  It is during this age that your child can hear a word just once and then automatically store that into his/her vocabulary for use.  This usually occurs at the 50 word mark.  We call that fast-mapping.  This is a period of rapid vocabulary growth.
24 months 100 words as a minimum.  Again, these words can still be approximations and not clear representations of the actual word.  This is especially true for multisyllabic words.  For example, “spiderman” might be pronounced “piepiema” or “helicopter” might be pronounced “opperdopper” and these are totally normal approximations for this age group.  At 24 months the child is speaking in mainly 2-3 word sentences.  These sentences are often not grammatically correct.  They are more telegraphic in nature; which is totally normal.  For example, “me no want” is entirely normal for a 2 year old.
3 years By the age of three, the telegraphic nature of the sentences should be replaced with full sentences.  The average 3 year old has 1000 words and is speaking in 4 word sentences.  Grammatical errors are still normal at this age (e.g., mixing up verb tense, or pronouns).
4 years Sentence length is now approaching that of adult speech.  Children should now be using contractions such as “it’s”, “what’s” and have a vocabulary of approximately 1500.

Receptive Language Milestones

(How many words should my child be able to understand by what age)

12 months By their first birthday, children should be responding to their name, following simple directions (for example, go get your shoes), and understands “no”.
18 months Children at this age can now understand approximately 50 words and will respond when asked to point to an object or repeat words.  They should respond to commands like “give me” and understand a variety of verbs.  By this age, children can now identify at least 3 different body parts on self or on a doll.
24 months By their second birthday, children are starting to understand concepts such as size, and “one”.  They are understanding prepositions:  on, and in.  They can now follow two step commands.
3 years We expect a 3 year old to respond to different ‘Wh’ questions such as “What is?”, or “Where is”?  They can now follow three step commands and can identify objects by their function (e.g., “Give me the toy that drives”).
4 years By this age, children can identify all primary colours and basic shapes.  They are following instructions even though objects are not present.  Children by 4 years of age can understand time concepts such as:  yesterday, tonight, lunchtime).

These are some general indicators which can give you an idea of your child’s speech and language development. Hopefully reading these lists of norms will put your mind at ease in terms of your child’s speech and language development. However, if you suspect that your child is not meeting these guidelines, an assessment with a registered and licensed speech-language pathologist is optimal to determine whether or not your child has a speech and/or language delay. Early intervention sets your child up for success!