UCHealth: Speech and language development in children

Content provided by UCHealth

A child’s “speech” begins with involuntary sounds and develops into sophisticated sequences of movements, using the lips and tongue to produce sounds and words, including articulation, fluency and voice.

Every child develops at his or her own pace, and parents often have questions about speech development and what’s typical when a child begins to grow and develop. Regardless of a child’s struggles or strengths, parents can identify milestones in speech development and provide support when needed.

Colleen Boyle, a speech language pathologist at UCHealth SportsMed Pediatric Therapy Clinic in Steamboat Springs, helps to clarify questions that parents may have regarding speech development in children.

Speech and language development milestones

Although milestones look different for each individual child, speech pathologists can typically identify any concerns by following a roadmap.

“It is expected that children have 10-15 words by 18 months, 15-20 words by 21 months, 50-plus words by 30 months, and 200-plus words by 35 months,” said Boyle. “Children begin using two-word phrases around the time they develop an expressive vocabulary of 50 words around 24-30 months.”

At the age of 8, speech sounds should be developing, though each child has a range of mastery at this age.

“English is an alphabetic language,” said Boyle. “We only have 26 letters, but there are 44 speech sounds, or phonemes. This includes 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds.”

In general, sound development is as follows:

  • At 2 years, a child should be able to pronounce the sounds of the letters p, b, d, n, m, h and w.
  • At 3 years, the sounds of the letters t, f, y, ng, k and g.
  • At 4 years, the sounds of ch, sh, dz, s, z, l and v.
  • At 5 years, the ability to pronounce th (as in that), zh and r.
  • At 6 years, th (as in teeth).

Identifying a speech or language delay

If a child is not meeting these milestones on time, it may be beneficial to talk with the child’s pediatrician about a referral to a speech language pathologist. This can help parents determine possible causes and whether treatment is necessary.

“While some children may take longer to find their words than others, there is a lot of research that supports early intervention as a key to preventing later language and literacy delays,” Boyle said.

A speech or language delay is identified through an evaluation, which typically consists of a parent interview, standardized testing, informal assessment and thorough chart review.

Parents may seek additional support if “they have communication concerns, if their child is getting frustrated when attempting to communicate, if their child is unable to participate with peers, if their child is unable to get their wants and needs met through speaking, if they are having challenges outside of the home such as at preschool, school or day camp, or if a child is not meeting language milestones,” Boyle said.

What can parents do? 

“The best thing parents and others in a child’s life can do is talk with them, play with them and read with them,” said Boyle. “When interacting, the time should be uninterrupted, with no phones or screens.”

Repetition and consistent practice with articulating words can also be a great benefit for children struggling with sound development.

“If you can set aside 10-15 minutes per day of uninterrupted play with your child to connect, this will benefit their language, mood and connection with you,” said Boyle. “Read together each night. Play with your child. Encourage imaginative play. It all makes a big difference in the development of your child.”

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