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Talking: What to expect when
At this age, your child's sentences should be smooth, clear, and pop out easily with no apparent effort. Five-year-olds can tell you what happened, describe people in detail, and ask questions clearly. A kindergartner can explain what you do with common objects, talk in complex sentences that often run together, and use past, present, and future tenses of verbs, such as "sit," "sitting," "sits," "sat," and "will sit." She should be able to recall and repeat about eight words, and comfortably listen to stories, conversations, and movies.
What you'll hear
Your child should have a good grasp of language by now. Some things to listen for:
Pronunciation: Her speech should be easy to understand by now. Some 5-year-olds, though, still mangle three- or four-syllable words — "manimal" for "animal" or "pasghetti" for "spaghetti" — and that's nothing to worry about. And some kids still struggle with a few tricky consonant sounds. For instance, she may say a w or a y for an l, such as "yeg" instead of "leg," or use w for r, such as "wabbit" instead of "rabbit," or substitute an f for a th, such as "baf" instead of "bath." These minor pronunciation problems will probably improve over the next year or so and are usually no cause for concern.
Lisping: Your child may lisp, or pronounce the s sound like a th. "My sister is seven" becomes "My thithter ith theven." If your child's s sounds this way, chances are you needn't be alarmed. Many children do it, and most outgrow it with no intervention by age 7.
Stuttering: While it can cause parents concern, stuttering at this age is a normal developmental phase that many children go through. Your child is coming to the close of a great leap in her language skills, so it's natural that she may have some difficulty putting her sentences together fluently. (Before every leap forward, there is typically a period of disintegration, followed by integration of the new skills.) Her rapidly developing brain is trying to pull up the right words in the right order. She may repeat the whole word or first syllable (not just the first sound); this is what most people think of when they think of stuttering. You may notice your child stutters more when she is tired, excited, or upset. Most kids outgrow this phase by age 5 or 6.
What you can do
Reading to — and with — your child is a great way to boost her language skills. Books help a child add words to her vocabulary, make sense of grammar, and link meanings to pictures, says Desmond Kelly, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who works with children with learning and language difficulties at the All Kinds of Minds Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Likewise, simply talking with your child helps. Many parents find mealtimes and bedtimes are a great chance for talking. These may be the only pauses in a busy day when you have a chance to chat with and really listen to your kids.
When your kindergartner does stumble over long words, resist the urge to correct her speech. Instead, model the right pronunciation of these tongue twisters when it's your turn to talk. For instance, say: "Yes, we're having spaghetti for dinner" instead of "It's 'spaghetti,' not 'pasghetti!'"
You can also take steps at home to help a child who stutters. Keep your voice soft and relaxed, your speech slow — think Mr. Rogers. Don't tell your daughter to slow down, though, you should simply listen and wait for her to finish her sentence or story. Maintain eye contact, smile, and be patient. If you turn away and act hurried, your child will feel pressure to "get it out," and this will only make her stuttering worse. Allow your child to express her frustration or embarrassment. She may say: "I can't say it. It won't come out." Acknowledge her feelings by saying: "I understand how frustrating that must be."
If your child lisps, pop a straw in her drinks. This kind of sucking motion promotes good oral-motor strength, which is important in language development. Encourage play activities that improve oral-motor strength. Have your child blow into a party horn that has a small, round mouthpiece. This is a good exercise because the effort needed to make a solid sound also strengthens the lips and cheek muscles, and tends to push the tongue back in. Blowing bubbles is another good exercise. Or have your child look in a mirror and practice putting her teeth together while she makes an s sound. This exercise can help her remember to keep her tongue behind her teeth. If she gets frustrated or upset practicing this routine, let it go — there's no point in making her self-conscious about something she'll probably outgrow on her own. Finally, encourage her to blow her nose. Stuffy nasal passages are sometimes the culprit behind lisping.
What to watch out for
If your child doesn't talk, says few words, doesn't spontaneously initiate conversation, or doesn't seem interested in talking or interacting with peers, then you should talk to a professional, says Kelly. Also have your child evaluated by a speech-language pathologist if she still uses immature sentence forms, such as "I no want to go," has trouble learning new words, or leaves out words in sentences and leaves out "I" in statements, saying, for instance, "Me want that [ball]." Your child may also need intervention if she has trouble remembering or retrieving words, difficulty using descriptive language, or a tough time explaining an incident or retelling a story.
A child who truly struggles to get words out or whose stuttering shows no sign of improvement after a few months also warrants special attention. If your child has trouble pronouncing many sounds, she may eventually have reading and spelling difficulties if the problem isn't addressed. Speech problems may also have a physical component, which you should talk to your child's pediatrician about. Tip-offs include drooling while mispronouncing words and difficulty eating or swallowing. In each of these cases, talk with your child's teacher about the problem, and make an appointment with the school's speech-language pathologist for a free speech and language screening. Or talk with her pediatrician, who can refer you to a private speech-language pathologist for an evaluation. Finally, if you have any concern that your child may have a speech delay due to a hearing problem, don't hesitate to call her physician.
As your child moves into the elementary years, she'll make great strides in refining pronunciation, sentence structure, and word use. Her attention span for listening and her memory for complex directions will noticeably increase as well. Six- to 8-year-olds delight in explaining experiences in greater detail, in a cohesive and logical fashion, and with greater elaboration than ever before (you may hear more than you want to know, for instance, about your child's adventures with her pals).
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