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Understanding language development milestones

January 28, 2020
by Rhea Paul, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Professor of Speech Language Pathology, Sacred Heart University

Most parents remember their children’s first steps. It’s an important milestone that means they can move through the world on their own. While fewer parents may remember their child’s first word, first words also mark a great change – the beginning of children’s ability to communicate with others. Although most kids sail effortlessly through language development, other children may exhibit delayed language at different ages from birth to five. Often children grow out of early delays, but in other cases, early intervention may help children before they fall too far behind. There are several particularly important milestones to look for that indicate that children are on-track in their language development.

Birth to four months. Babies generally smile and look at people, as well as make cooing/gooing sounds between 2 and 4 months of age.

Four to eight months: A major milestone of this period is the beginning of babbling, especially between 6 and 8 months when babies start what is called canonical babbling, the repetition of syllables in a string (/da da da da da/).

Eight to twelve months: Children begin to use gestures and sounds to communicate. They point and show things to others, and look at what others point to or show them. They babble with lots of different sounds and sometimes sound as if they are saying a whole sentence. They will imitate your gestures when you sing songs and respond when their name is called.

Twelve to eighteen months: Most children start walking and talking around their first birthday, but not starting either until 18 months is still within the normal range. One year olds who are showing the 8-12 month pre-speech communication behaviors above but not talking yet may simply be “late talkers” who are typical in every other way.

Eighteen to twenty-four months: The major milestones of language development at this age include saying at least 50 different words, putting words together to make two-word phrases, producing some words that can be understood by family members, and following simple commands (“Get your shoes.”). “Late talkers” may still be using gestures and sounds to communicate.

Two year olds: The major milestones in the third year of life are the appearance of 3-4 word sentences, the ability have a brief back-and-forth conversation with an adult, and the ability to say words that can be understood most of the time by family members.

Three year olds: Children this age typically use mostly full sentences, use language for both conversation and play, and can be understood most of the time by family members and others.

Four to five year olds: Typically developing 4-5 year olds still make a few speech errors but are understood almost all the time by almost everyone. They produce full sentences most of the time with few errors or missing words. They can tell stories, carry on a conversation over several turns with an adult, use language to set up play with peers and enjoy using language to pretend.

Parents, educators, and primary care doctors can make a great difference in children’s growth by being aware of the milestones associated with language development and signs that a child may benefit from additional resources and assistance in language development. When a child is having trouble reaching any of these milestones, it’s a good idea to talk to a health care professional about doing a hearing test and developmental screening. Depending on the outcome of these first steps, the health care provider may recommend talking with early intervention professionals, or reassessing the child’s hearing and development in a few months.

If early intervention is recommended, it does not mean there is anything permanently “wrong” with the child. Children follow different paths through early development. Language in particular is prone to delays caused by what may be temporary conditions, like middle ear infections or a slower developmental schedule. Even when no permanent disability is present, early intervention can help a child learn to focus on language, express wants and needs to avoid frustration, and it can give parents and teachers tools to stimulate the child’s advancement.

A recent collaboration with a local early childhood education program involved working with infant/toddler teachers to explore how to support children with slower-than-average language development. Specifically, the project trained speech-language pathology graduate students from Sacred Heart University to coach teachers on how to present especially helpful language input and encourage the children to learn new words. Early intervention teachers often teach these same tools when they work with parents in their homes. This project is designed to give children showing slower language development a boost to enhance their learning, without having to give them a “diagnosis.” This example of how clinicians, teachers, and parents can work together to put research into practice for the benefit of children aligns well with PEER’s mission of using research to support high-quality early childhood education in Connecticut.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on January 28, 2020