Speech and Language Development

Speech and Language development in children

 “Language is used by all of us to describe, explain, and inquire about the world around us. For children, this world is a fascinating wonder that often is controlled by unseen forces that we as adults can only imagine.” (Owen 1988)

Developmental patterns:

In the same way as physical development follows a predictable pattern so language and speech development follows a pattern and in general children attain skills at predictable ages. However, the opportunity for learning needs to be present, in order for development to take place. Keep in mind that if a child has not attained the maturation level needed for a skill no amount of practice can compensate for that deficit. A 6-month old does not have the physical or intellectual ability to read, no matter how much one practises reading.


Even though there are predictable stages and ages for development the range of normality is broad. Normative data is meant as a guide and should not be slavishly adhered to. Development depends on many factors such as: genes, nutrition, sex, intelligence and overall emotional and physical growth.


Language development in the first year

Birth – 1 month:

Soon after birth the newborn falls into a deep sleep for 14-18 hours to conserve energy for stabilizing body functions such as heart and breathing rate. The newborn cannot control movements smoothly or voluntarily. Their movements are jerky, automatic and involuntary, known as reflexes.

Reflexes help newborns to react to their world while they are learning to control movements and ensure their survival. For example the gag reflex protects the lungs form inhaling fluids.

Crying is one of the first means of communication that the newborn uses. Four basic cries have been identified:

1)    The birth cry: consists of two gasps followed by a wail that lasts 1 second. Later the following three cries can be identified.

2)    The basic or hunger cry: consists of a rhythmic pattern of loud crying, silence, breathing in and rest. During the rest the baby may show a sucking response.

3)    The pain cry: is loud and shrill and consists of a very long cry followed by a long breath holding silence and a series of short whimpers. Often the face muscles tense up and the fists are clenched.

4)    The angry cry: is an exasperated sound because more air is expended.


By the end of the first month the mother is usually able to differentiate between these cries and respond to the infants needs. As vocal behaviours such as cooing increase, crying decreases.


The infant is “prewired” for communication:

Vision: Although the newborn babies are unable to focus on objects at various distances they are able to focus at an optimal at 19 cm anything beyond this distance appears blurred. During feeding this is almost the exact distance that the baby is held at and the mother gazes down at the baby 70% of the time while feeding. It seems that new born babies are most attracted to the human face. Researchers found that babies will gaze longer at line drawings of the human face than any other shape or even the shape of a face with mixed up facial features. Fantz (1963). Babies are able to distinguish their mothers face from other faces from as early as two weeks. From the beginning the infant is designed to find the human face and especially the eyes, fascinating.


Hearing: At birth the middle ear is filled with amniotic fluid. The Newborn’s optimal hearing range is within the frequency of the human voice. A one day old will stop crying and attend to his mother’s voice and the mother in turn will stop doing almost anything to attend to her baby’s crying. Each one is tuned in to the other. Infants will tend to tilt their heads and lift their chins toward the source of a human voice. The mother in turn interprets these various head positions as communication signal.


Socialization and early communication: Birth – 6 months.

Between 3-6 weeks the infant begins to smile in response to the human face, eye-gaze and the human voice. By 2 months cooing occurs with other expressions. By 14 weeks the infant prefers visually complex stimuli. A 3 month old has an internal scheme of familiar faces, events and people. So the attraction value of someone’s face depends on how much it differs from the infant’s internal scheme. In other words at this stage mothers will start exaggerating their voices and facial expressions to keep the infants attention. And the infant responds to this stimulation. At this stage turn taking develops. Mothers will tend to imitate their baby’s coughs, yawns or sighs and wait for a response from the baby. At around 3 months babies learn that a certain cry will cause a certain response from the mother i.e.; crying will cause mother to come.


During the period of 3-6 months the child has developed a full repertoire of facial emotions and imitates the mother’s facial expressions. A 5 month old will also vocalise different attitudes to a mirror and other people or even toys.  As the infant approaches 6 months a shift of interest from people to toys occurs. This shift reflects the development of hand eye co-ordination which can be observed in how they grasp and manipulate objects.


The development of intentionality: 7-12 months

From 7 months onward infants go through a stage of clinging to the mother. Research has shown that babies will play with a toy as long as their mothers are watching but when the mother turns away they will leave their toys 50% of the time and try to regain their mother’s attention. (Carr, Dabbs & Carr; 1975) Predictability of the mother’s behaviour may be the crucial factor.


The infant shows an increasing ability to listen to familiar words and they start complying with requests such as “wave bye-bye”. Mothers tend to watch their infants gaze and then name something that they are both looking at.  At about 8-9 months the infant develops intentionality.  They attempt to communicate by touching the mother to gain attention and then gesture toward an object. This will later develop into pointing. The child may then start using consistent sounds and intonation patterns of their own for specific things that they want.  At this stage turn taking also develops further and a favourite game of theirs is passing or “trading” toys between 2 communication partners.


Speech development in the first year:

0-1   Month: Infants are able to produce oral sounds. They attain a measure of voice control.

2-3   Months: Goo stage. Primarily make vowel-like sounds. Some consonant-like sounds may be produced.

4-6     Months: Coo stage. Start of what will later be proper syllables. Approximations of [k],[g],[p]and [b] may be heard. Raspberries appear. They experiment with extremes of volume and pitch.

7-10   Months: Reduplicated babbling stage. More definable vowel and consonants appear. They duplicate CV combinations such as “dadada”.

11-14 Months: Jargon stage. The child can vary his\her pitch and volume but are still lacking the words. It sounds as if the child is using sentences as they are able to imitate the adult intonation and stress but they don’t know the words and grammatical structures need to make complete sentences. During this stage the first real words appear.


Babbling:  Between 4 and 10 months children produce a wide variety of speech sounds which may or may not occur in the language that the parents speak. In a sense the child produces the full range of possible human speech sounds. Deaf children begin babbling at a similar age and in a similar way so researchers have concluded that children babble because it feels good or interesting to them.  Gradually the sounds used by the adults in the child’s environment will be used more and the others drop out. (Newman et al 1985).


How do we stimulate communication at this stage?

(A. Manolsen)

1)    Follow your child’s lead:  Allow your child to initiate communication. By doing that the child lets you know two important things:

  1. a) Their level of communication and b) what is of interest to them. When you respond to their communications at their level they are more likely to learn. Wait, look and listen to what interests them.  Then give the child a chance to communicate. Don’t always automatically anticipate his\her need and meet that need. For example don’t pour the juice automatically allow them a chance to ask for it. If the doorbell rings allow them an opportunity to comment or react.


2)    Be at the same physical level: get onto the floor with the child allow them to see your face. It also puts you in a better position to follow the child’s lead.


3)    Know what to expect: the child may communicate in various different ways such as pointing, nodding, signs etc. if you expect too much you might miss a communication attempt e.g. If you expect him\her to use a word and they only able to point or grunt. On the other hand if you accept only a grunt when the child can say a word the quality of his\her speech won’t improve.


4)    Imitate or model the child’s intended message as if you were speaking for your child. Imitate the vocalizations that your child makes. Then label and expand what he\she are trying to communicate to you. If you attempt to be one language level above your child you will encourage good learning. I.e. if your child is not yet saying words then imitate their babbling noises and expand on them or label the word that the child may be referring to. E.g. Baby says ‘a-a’ while trying to reach his water. Then you say “water”.  If the child is able to say a few single words, you can speak to the child with short two word sentences e.g. “drink water”, “yummy water”, “more water?” in that way one is speaking at the level at which the child is not only able to understand and learn, but imitate you as well. In that way one encourages the child to use language which is at his\her level or slightly above their level.


5)    Repetition is crucial: find as many ways as possible to repeat words in every day activities such as taking clothes off, bathing or eating. Repeating words such as body parts or verbs. E.g. “Take off shoe”, “wash hands, wash feet”.


6)    Encourage taking turns: When you have said something i.e. taken a conversational turn, pause and wait with anticipation for your child to take a turn. A lack of pause can cause over stimulation and a less responsive child (Owen 1988). If the child does not respond you can use your body to indicate that it is their turn by: widening your eyes, smiling, mouthing the word you want your child to say or pointing either to the child or the object concerned. You could also ask questions, remembering to stay at your child’s level.


7)    Prompting:  Help your child to focus on the new information that you want them to learn. It is especially effective when the child wants something. E.g. you want your child to say the word “milk”. Go through the above steps and see if the child will imitate your correct model. If not you can draw specific attention to how the word is said by holding the glass of milk next to your face, so that the child will look at it and how you are saying the word. You could also emphasize an easy sound in the word by making it longer “mmmmilk”. If your child has made some attempt to say the word, remember to praise them and continue the conversation.

Language development in the second year:

In the 2nd year of life the dependent baby changes to a more independent toddler. They are more mobile and have the skills to explore their world. They will get into everything if allowed to. Their play and exploration is solitary and non social. A favourite game is carrying things and giving them to someone. They test object qualities by prodding pushing pulling and lifting things. Mouthing decreases. By 18 months they can recognize pictures in book and by the age of 2 they pretend to read books. They can hold a crayon and scribble vertical and horizontal lines. By 18 months they start using objects as they were intended to be used e.g. comb for combing hair. Most of the social interaction that occurs revolves around the toddler wanting to be in the spotlight. Non compliance with the wishes of the family reflects the toddlers increasing self awareness. They also become increasingly aware objects have owners associated with them. Around 18 months they are very possessive of toys and frequently use the word “mine”. Parallel play occurs. Children will play near others but not with them. Between 12-18 months it seems as if the children concentrate their energy on refining walking and other motor functions. Language acquisition is slow and consists of single words. In the second half of the year there is an increase in the rate of vocabulary growth. At age 2 the vocabulary may be between 150-300 words and will start combining these words into 2 or 3 word sentences.


13-18 months:

Between 12-18 months it seems as if the children concentrate their energy on refining walking and other motor functions. Language acquisition is slow and consists of single words. As the child becomes sure of itself as a walker they begin to systematically explore the environment. Climbing soon follows steady walking.


Increased hand control can be seen in how the toddler is able to pick up and release objects. They can build a tower of 2-3 blocks, put together a simple puzzle and turn thick pages of a book. They are starting to discover what the true meaning or function of an object is and the find shape-sorter toys and nesting cups and boxes interesting. They start imitating what they see adults do with objects e.g. sweeping with a broom or feeding a doll.


The 13-18 month old is highly egocentric. (Which is a nice word for selfish) They recognise their own name and use it for thinking of themselves as apart from others. Around 16-18 months most children begin vocabulary building, by demanding names of objects in the environment. They may need to hear words over and over until they are able to use them meaningfully. They generally understand 50 words but only use 10-20 to refer to things in the environment. Some children will acquire many label words before using them in phrases others will use short phrases from 16 or 17 months (the phrases are fixed i.e. they cannot use the words in different phrases).  By 18 months they have fairly good control of the tongue and use many short 2 word sentences e.g. ‘me up’, ‘all gone’.  They also realise that they can control adults and temper tantrums occur.


How do we stimulate learning at this age level?

Show them that different objects make different noises.

Play music and move to the rhythm. (dancing or clapping)

Introduce them to different textures (have a feely bag).

Let them smell different foods, flowers, shampoo etc.


Teach them to manipulate objects e.g. turning a bottle upside down to get an object out, or pouring water into containers while playing in the bath.

Show them how to activate toys and try by themselves as well.

Encourage them to put objects into containers, when they are good at that you can practise putting simple shapes into a form board.

Play with nesting cups, or stack empty containers.


Use gestures and encourage the child to imitate. Say a rhyme or sing a song while do the gestures. E.g. “twinkle, twinkle little star. Pat-a-cake.”

Begin to teach the concept of “same” and “different” using things around the house such as their shoes, spoons bowls etc.

Show them that different objects react in different ways to the same stimulus. Blow out a candle, blow away a tissue, and blow a whistle or party blower.

Hide and seek objects or people.


Teach your child to use simple words and phrases such a ‘more’ and ‘all gone’. Encourage the use of gesture with the words e.g. ‘bye-bye’.

Expand their use of words to phrases using the following rules.


Person action = Daddy go

Object action = car stop

Possession = mommy shoe

Greetings = hi daddy

Recurrence = more juice


Help them to show you their possessions. E.g. “where is your shoe?”

Ask the child to follow simple requests. E.g. “sit down, come here”.

Show the child picture of family members and talk about them or ask the child to help sort the washing putting the different items of clothing on a pile for each member of the family.

Encourage co-operative play by rolling a ball between you.

You can start teaching them to use the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Teach them to ask for help appropriately and not just cry for all that they want.

Help them to show affection to others.


19-24 months

The months leading up to the second birthday are characterised by a drive for autonomy. They try to do more things for themselves. They test their own limits and those that the parents place upon them. They try every version of walking I.e. walking side ways and backwards and running. They enjoy large muscle activities like climbing and swinging. They are distracted easily by objects in the environment and because they still have a very short attention span. They will show a definite preference for one hand and can manipulate puzzle pieces, string beads etc. They enjoy observing the results of their actions and are curious about objects that fit together. They enjoy playing dress-up which is an expression of their desire to be grown up. Children of this age group can play alone for periods ranging from between 15 minutes to an hour if an adult remains close by. Their understanding of words increases to between 300 and 400 words and they use about 250 words. Most utterances are two phrases based on the rules of adult language. They begin to understand the concept of ‘wait’ and ‘soon’.  They should be an active participant in dressing and eating routines, although they will need and adults help and supervision. They begin to interpret the pictures in book as symbols representing objects.


How can you stimulate them at this age?    

Help them to find objects that are hidden by the sound they make e.g. a ringing alarm clock, or music box. They can experiment with objects to hear the different sounds they make.


Help them to throw and catch a variety of objects, such as a swing ball or balloon, a bean bag or a large ball.

To improve fine motor skills you can let them put a long necklace in a small container or let them stack different containers in a row or a circle.

At this age you can also start teaching them to walk up and down stairs, with one hand being held. They may also learn to kick a ball with one foot while maintaining their balance and jump with two feet in the air.

You can tell them about loud and soft sounds and differences in weight. They should also be able to match animal sounds.

Use short simple sentences to talk about the things happening in daily life e.g. “mommy is cooking”, “here is your truck”. You may begin reading very simple stories to your child and looking through a magazine and talking about what you see. Teach your child the words we use for counting by counting everything that they deal with.

Encourage your child to refer to themselves by using their name, e.g. what does ——— want?

Teach them to name and identify different body part on themselves and others.

Socially we want to encourage them to play next to other children and also to play independently for longer periods of time.