Speech development - How You Can Help

Speak easy

When your baby starts lisping his first words there's plenty you can do to get the language ball rolling, write speech therapists Camilla Peet and Christian Wright.

As your child's communication skills develop you will see his personality start to blossom. From the first word at around 12 months, children attempt new words with increasing frequency. By 18 months it is typical for a child to use up to 50 words and have between 200 and 300 words by age two.
     There is no set order for words starting to develop but early words will usually have meaning for the child, for example, "fish", because he is fascinated by the fish tank in your home, or "light" because he loves turning the light on and off.
     Often, a second child will learn the power of saying "no" early on! Closer to 24 months a child will start using pseudo two-word utterances which are words he has learned as a one-word phrase, such as "love you" and "high five!" From 24 months a child should start to create two-word phrases, for example, "Dad's keys" and "baby gone".

Talking tools
The following are some suggestions for ways parents can encourage their toddler to communicate: Repetition: Compare the way a child learns language to how you would learn a second language. If someone used a 20-word sentence while holding up a pen you wouldn't know which word in the sentence meant pen, but if he said the single word and repeated it over and over you would quickly learn what object the word referred to. For children learning their first words, lots of repetition lets them memorise how a word sounds, thus increasing the likelihood of using it.
Get down to your child's level: Have you ever had the experience of someone talking to you who is standing over you? The conversation may feel unbalanced, as though the person standing has more authority. As a result, it is not uncommon for the person sitting to make less eye contact. Most communication is non-verbal and much of the message's meaning is carried in facial expressions and gestures. If we make less eye contact, then we miss important parts of the message. This is no different for children.
Motivation: If your child runs to the high chair for his afternoon snack you can use this moment of high motivation to start naming (using single words) the things he will be eating. For example, "Cracker… yummmm!!" Alternatively, try giving your child a carrot stick (raisin, chippie - something he can eat quickly) and show him that you have more. When he reaches out for another one, hold on to it for a few seconds, say "more", wait a second, then offer it. This will help him to create the link between using words and getting what he wants.
Let your child lead: Linked to motivation is the need for parents to follow their child's lead. It can be frustrating to sit and watch your child trying to put the cow jigsaw piece in the pig hole, but it can also be a wonderful time for using lots of language. Your child might not be trying to fit the piece at all, he might just be enjoying the sound that the piece makes as it hits the edges. Try animal noises, point to the cow and say "moo" and then point to the correct space and say "moo", but don't push it. You don't want your child to think he is playing incorrectly and give up. Don't go into play with an agenda or set idea of what words you would like to teach. There is no point repeating "train" over and over if your child is more interested in watching the wheels go round.
Comments versus questions: Try not to use too many questions in the early stages of communication development. It is a horrible feeling to be asked a question when you don't know the answer and the easiest thing, rather than to answer incorrectly, is to stay silent. It is the same with children, if they are constantly asked, "What's this?" the world becomes full of "What's this?" but they don't learn the names of things.
     Instead of asking questions, pause in your conversation to encourage a response, count to 10 in your head (which can feel like a really long time!). If he doesn't respond, comment on his play instead of questioning him. For example, if your child is playing with a particular object, give him an appropriate word, "car", or a two-word phrase that describes the activity he is engaging in ("fast car!") and then pause again. Your child will learn to fill the silence.
     Try adopting an animated tone to ensure your comment is interesting. For example, say "fast" quickly and drag out "slow", use the ups and downs of your voice, or adopt silly voices etc.
Talk normally: Equally as important is to speak normally to describe what you are doing or to comment on things that you can see. Using your regular speech will help teach sentence structure, intonation and the social nuances of language.

When to be concerned
Normal language development for children varies hugely and, as tempting as it is to compare development with children in your antenatal or playgroup, it's not likely to provide you with useful information about how your child is doing.
     Girls usually develop language faster and, on the flipside, boys often develop their physical skills faster. Any language differences are often negligible by the time children are at school and speaking in more complete sentences.
      It can be difficult to know at what point your child may turn from a late talker to needing support with their communication. If your child reaches 18 months and is yet to say her first word, don't hesitate to contact a speech-language therapist. It is always better to intervene early, often parents just need a few strategies to use with their children to provide the developmental nudge their child needs.
     There will be times when your child gets frustrated that he can't make himself understood. A major factor contributing to the "terrible twos" is that children's language is not at the level it needs to be for them to assert their independence and begin using their language to affect their environment. You can ask your child to show you what it is he is talking about by saying, "Show me" or by giving him a choice to narrow down the context. Make educated guesses: "Do you want food or a cuddle?" There is nothing wrong with admitting that you can't understand what he is trying to tell you.

Say it again, baby
Finally, it is important to bear in mind the impact of intelligibility on your child's language development. When your child starts to use language he will use many more words than you can understand. As a rule of thumb when baby is 18 months you should understand around 25% of what your child tells you. By 24 months you are doing well if you understand 50-75% and that is if you are a familiar listener (ie, you spend a lot of time with your child). Unfamiliar listeners will understand around half of this amount.
     There are a number of patterns to speech sound errors which are completely normal and these should resolve as the child matures. When your child is still at the one-to-three-word level you don't need to worry about correcting his speech sounds. The main priority at this point is to encourage his language development and so avoid exerting any pressure.
     Learning language in these early stages is so wonderful to watch and be involved with that you want to encourage your child every step of the way. All of your child's early language attempts are cause for celebration and he is more likely to take risks and try new words if he receives praise rather than correction. At this early stage when he says a word wrongly, just repeat it back to him correctly (but encouragingly!) so he can hear it the right way.

Camilla Peet is a speech language therapist who works privately in the Wellington region ( She has two preschoolers. Christian Wright is a father of four and a speech language therapist also in Wellington ( From time to time he can be heard on RNZ's Nine to NoonShow.


As seen in OHbaby! magazine Issue 19: 2012
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