Parent’s Guide to Language, Speech and Listening Development

While there is a broad spectrum of normal, there is a general expectation of when and how you’ll see language speech and listening development in kids.

Below, I have written out a rough estimate of what will occur, and when. Remember, these are the milestones. Children will reach these in their own time, in their own way. However, some children will need a bit of help. You shouldn’t stress about whether your child is exactly on time or on target. But you should know what the progression is so you identify if your child is having trouble developing communication skills, and get him the help he needs without delay.

Birth to Three Months

  • Cry or jerk in response to sudden or loud noises
  • Response to familiar items or people, such as parents or toys
  • Cries change, and parents can begin to identify cries associated with hunger, tiredness, and pain
  • Cooing and vowel sounds, with intonation changes
  • Watchful eyes

Three to Six Months

  • Babbling begins in earnest, with vowel and consonant syllables, with intonation changes
  • Laughing
  • Showing pleasure or happiness
  • Turns head to investigate sounds
  • Reacts when familiar person speaks
  • Getting louder when crying or yelling
  • Delighted when food is presented (breast, bottle, snacks)

Six to Nine Months

  • Increased comprehension of simple words like no, and names
  • Babbling, perhaps singing
  • Two syllable babble-words, such as dada, gaga, baba, mama, even if the word doesn’t mean anything yet to the child
  • Facial expressions make sense to her and she reacts to them
  • First attempts to wave bye-bye
  • Shakes head or turns away when he doesn’t want something
  • Usually more and more sounds

Nine to Twelve Months

  • Imitation time, enjoys repeating sounds he hears
  • Begins to say words with meaning, such as mama, dada, or other words that correspond to a person or item
  • New understanding that words can mean something, such as objects
  • Loud babbling
  • Enjoyment of music
  • Will fetch toys or other items when requested
  • May make animal sounds
  • Pointing or whining when she wants something
  • Quick response to sounds

Twelve to Eighteen Months

  • Understanding of words increases, between 10-100
  • uses at least three words, even if not correctly pronounced
  • Points to objects when requested
  • Knows some body parts and will point to them
  • Makes noise when pointing at things
  • Follows simple commands
  • May use words like “up” “down” and “more”
  • Imitation of sounds
  • Some understandable words

Eighteen Months to Two Years

  • He understands 200-300 words
  • Uses 50 or more recognizable words
  • Wants to repeat stories
  • Uses rising sound to ask a question
  • Shakes or nods head in response to questions
  • Can complete two-step commands (pick that up, and bring it to me)
  • Uses verbs (go)
  • Uses describing words (hot)
  • Joins two words
  • Sings along with sounds
  • Pauses between words

Two to Three Years

  • Understanding of close to 1,000 words
  • Can use 500+ words
  • Pronunciation improves
  • Makes eye contact with people he is talking to (may require prompting)
  • Can express frustration with more words and less emotion/crying
  • Will sit and listen to books for 10-20 minutes at a time
  • Begins to be able to identify a boy versus a girl
  • Answers simple who, what, and where questions
  • Asks questions
  • Talks to self during play
  • Start using function words (is)

Three to Four Years

  • Increasing use of the word “is”
  • Understands 1200+ words
  • Uses close to 1000 words
  • Make more eye contact while talking to others
  • Asks many questions (sometimes too many)
  • Understands temporal concepts, such as today, tomorrow, morning, night
  • Uses and understands positions words (on top, under, over, around, front, back)
  • Puts a “s” on words to show present tense
  • Beginning use of contractions (won’t)
  • Use of the word “and”
  • Makes use of plural words correctly
  • Uses “are” in speaking
  • Starts up conversations
  • Focus on one activity for 10-15 minutes independently
  • Comprehends simple stories and answers questions about what happened
  • May still stutter, but decreasing
  • Increase pronunciation of entire word, beginning, middle and end
  • May still struggle with certain sounds

Four to Five Years

  • Comprehension of close to 3000 words
  • Uses close to 2000 words
  • Fairly clear speech
  • Usage of complete sentences
  • Makes up stories
  • Pronouns such as he, she, I, you, and them are used correctly
  • Describes what objects can do
  • Employs present, past, and future tenses of verbs
  • Follows multi-step commands
  • Explains past events in great detail
  • Knows opposites (big vs little, soft vs hard, etc)
  • Chatting
  • Repeats longer sentences, in excess of 10 syllables
  • Listens to stories, conversations, and movies
  • May still mispronounce sounds

Five to Seven Years

  • Fairly decent speech by now, improvements are more like refinements
  • Improving sentence structure, work use, and pronunciation
  • Expanding attention span for listening
  • Improving memory for directions
  • More vocabulary, and new words are used in speech
  • Enjoyment of recounting things that happened, with more detail than in previous years
  • Participates in discussions in groups
  • Takes turns in conversation
  • Improves understanding of language relationships, such as opposites, synonyms, associations, and classification

In these years, children often begin school. Their language is now translated into writing, and understood through reading. Children whose oral language is poor frequently struggle when reading, writing, and spelling are introduced.

Seven Years and beyond

  • Shows reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills appropriate to their age group
  • Less vagueness
  • Listeners understand the child’s stories
  • Master of work relationships
  • Learns how to master words with multiple syllables
  • Reading and listening comprehension improves by year
  • Employment of idioms (“you hit the nail on the head”)
  • Complex plot understanding
  • Language begins to mirror adult speaking

When Should I Get Help For a Speech Language or Listening Problem?

Each child is unique. Thus, there isn’t a specific deadline or timeline when a parent suspects a problem. It is important to remember too that speech problems have little to no correlation with intelligence. Highly intelligent children can experience language issues, just as children who have limited intellectual abilities.

child language delays

While you shouldn’t rush to the doctor or the experts in fear every time your child seems to be off the general timeline, it is important not to wait too long. Children who need assistance with their language or hearing tend to struggle dramatically when they enter school. It make take months or even years to iron out how best to assist her, and she may struggle to recover that school-time lost.

Warning Signs of Receptive Language Issues

If you child exhibits the following behaviors, he may have what is called a “receptive language problem”:

  • Difficulty understanding stories told or read aloud. Children may cover their confusion with disinterest.
  • Reading comprehension fails to improve after he learns to read. Remedial reading can assist but if comprehension fails to improve, it may be worthwhile to check on language-based issues.
  • A child develops relationships focused on physical activity rather than on conversation. There’s nothing wrong with a physical child. But as they grow older, they should be developing relationships away from athletic endeavors.
  • A forgetful child. This can be frustrating for parents. A child may appear to hear what you tell her, but then really does actually forget what you told her, seemingly within minutes or even seconds.
  • Misunderstandings. A child who struggles with comprehension may act out more than others, or end up with hurt feelings.
  • Following directions difficulties. Children gradually improve in their ability to hear and understand directions, and then carry out the requests in the right order. For children who struggle with receptive language processing, they may end up confused, pretending to do something (or not), or goofing off to cover up.

Warning Signs of Expressive Language Issues

If you child exhibits the following behaviors, he may have what is called a “expressive language problem”:

  • Gives short answers to questions and fails to initial conversations
  • Over-generalization of names of things (all things may be “pop” instead of Coke, 7-Up, Dr Pepper, etc)
  • Stories are garbled and nonsensical, often going in circles
  • Remembering names of people, places, and things is tough
  • Sentences come out of their mouth with words in the wrong order

Red Flags

Recurrent Ear Infections

If a young child is tons and tons of ear infections, watch their process in speech and comprehension carefully. These infections are frequently associated with delays even years after infections stop.

Behavior Issues

There is a correlation between children who express antisocial behaviors and poor language and listening skills. There is little data to use to conclude that one causes the other. However, it never hurts to take a closer look at the skills of a child who is struggling with emotional or physical outbursts.

Children who are struggling to understand or express themselves can get frustrated and angry. They may not understand where those big feelings are coming from. These feelings can come out of them in many ways, in many scenarios, leaving the parents feeling bewildered and helpless.

If your child is consistently exhibiting poor behavior, take a look at their language, listening, and comprehension skills, or seek the assistance of an expert.

Other Warning Signs (birth to 12 months)

  • No eye contact or avoidance of it
  • Quiet, no babbling
  • Doesn’t respond to speech directed at her
  • Shows little or not interest in imitating gestures or signs
  • Cries a lot, without a change in intonation or volume
  • Little emotion

12 to 18 month warning signs

  • No eye contact or avoidance
  • No syllables or words
  • Doesn’t point to body parts when asked
  • Unable to follow verbal directions

18 to 24 month warning signs

  • Still no eye contact
  • Struggles to point to pictures, objects, or people when named
  • Very quiet
  • Rarely makes noise of any kind, including speech
  • Doesn’t listen to others
  • Shows little interest in speaking

24 to 36 month warning signs

  • No eye contact
  • Struggles to sign songs or repeat simple nursery rhymes
  • Can’t name common objects
  • Stuck on single word sentences
  • Can’t sit or pay attention for more than a few minutes
  • Any speech is difficult to understand

3 years to 5 years warning signs

  • Manner of speaking is obviously different from peers of same age
  • Speech is difficult to understand
  • Disinterested in playing with other children
  • Makes noises or points instead of using words
  • Struggles to follow simple oral directions
  • Leaves out words in sentences (is, the, a)
  • Incomplete words

5 years to 7 years warning signs

  • Difficult in school with reading, writing, or spelling
  • Tries hard but fails tests
  • Forgets new words quickly
  • Avoidance of conversation
  • Struggles with directions
  • Poor pronunciation
  • Sounds “babyish”
  • Easily distracted
  • Directions must be repeated multiple times
  • Conversations don’t make sense
  • Struggles to respond to simple questions
  • Behavioral or social problems
  • Stuttering

When all else fails…

If you are concerned, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Check with your child’s teachers, care providers, and others who interact with her to see what they think. Make an appointment with your pediatrician. Contact a speech and get an evaluation done.

Blogs like this one, forums, (and medical websites) have good information but ultimately you should rely on your own experience with your child (as you are the expert in her life and welfare), and the experience/recommendations of your doctor in determining whether or not to act.

You might also like this recent article: How Do You Start Teaching Your Child to Read?

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