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What to expect when
Children learn to talk at different speeds, so don't be surprised if your child isn't using the same vocabulary or expressions as playmates the same age. However, there are some general guidelines for typical speech and language development.
By age 5, your child should:
- Pronounce all the sounds of speech (though sounds like l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh, and th might still be tricky).
- Respond when asked, "What did you say?"
- Name letters and numbers.
- Use more than one verb in a sentence, such as, "I got my ball and played with Freddy."
- Tell short stories.
- Maintain a conversation.
- Tailor the way she talks to suit different listeners and places, like using shorter sentences with younger kids or a louder voice when playing outside.
By the end of first grade, your child should:
- Be easy to understand.
- Ask and answer wh questions – who, what, when, where, and why.
- Tell stories and talk about events in a logical order.
- Use varied, complete sentences.
- Use correct grammar most of the time.
- Initiate and maintain conversations, taking turns speaking.
- Give and follow directions with two and three steps.
By the end of second grade, your child also should:
- Be able to explain words and ideas.
- Use speech to inform, persuade, and engage with other people.
- Use more complex sentences.
- Take turns, stay on topic, and use eye contact during conversations.
- Give and follow directions with three and four steps.
Some children still have trouble getting ideas across or have other language difficulties that might affect their ability to learn important new skills, such as reading and writing.
Some children still have minor pronunciation problems at this age. Here are a few common ones you might hear:
- Your child might mix up words with multiple syllables, such as "manimal" for "animal," or "pasghetti" for "spaghetti."
- Some kids still struggle with a few tricky consonant sounds. Your child may say a w or a y for an l ("yeg" instead of "leg") or use w for r ("wabbit" instead of "rabbit") or substitute an f for a th ("baf" instead of "bath"). Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association says, "Some of these sounds may not be speech errors at all, but just differences in an accent or dialect."
What you can do: When your child stumbles over long words, resist the urge to correct his speech. Just model the right pronunciation when it's your turn to talk. So instead of saying, "It's spaghetti, not pasghetti!" you can say, "Yes, we're having spaghetti for dinner."
These minor pronunciation problems may not be cause for concern, and most children can say all speech sounds by age 7. However, don't wait and hope your child will outgrow speech sound errors. A speech-language pathologist can help and the earlier, the better.
Your child may lisp or pronounce the s sound like a th, so that "My sister is seven" becomes "My thithter ith theven." Another common variation is to pronounce the z sound like a th, as in "thoo" for "zoo," and "eethee" for "easy."
What you can do: If your child still has a lisp by age 5, it's a good idea to make an appointment with a speech-language pathologist rather than continue waiting to see if your child outgrows it. The specialist will take a detailed history, check your child's mouth's structure and function, and get a speech and language sample to study. Often the problem can be resolved in a short time.
Also, make sure your child can breathe comfortably, and treat any allergy, cold, or sinus problems so your child can breathe through her nose with her lips together. An open-mouth breathing posture causes the tongue to lie flat and protrude. A stuffy nose is often the cause, so work on nose-blowing too.
Most people (adults and children alike) stutter from time to time, often when they're nervous or rushed. Examples of stuttering include:
- Repeating part of a word, as in, "W-w-w-where are you going?"
- Prolonging a sound, as in, "Ssssit down in the chair."
- Inserting interjections and having difficulty completing a sentence, as in, "I want to – um, um, um, you know, um – go outside."
Most kids outgrow stuttering before age 5. But some kids continue to stutter, and the reason why is unclear. Sometimes stuttering grows more severe over time, or it may vary quite a bit from day to day.
It's a good idea to make an appointment with an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist if your child stutters regularly. The speech-language pathologist will do an evaluation to determine whether your child's stutter is likely to continue and can work with your child on therapy that will lessen the severity of stuttering.
A speech-language pathologist also can help if you see tension in your child's jaw or cheeks, or if he looks away, clenches his fist from tension, blinks repeatedly, grimaces, or stomps his feet in frustration trying to get the words out.
What you can do: Be patient. Resist the urge to finish your child's sentences or fill in words for him. Suggestions like "relax" or "slow down" aren't really helpful and can make your child feel even more pressure to get his words out.
Keep giving your child your attention. You may feel like looking away while your child tries to talk to give him time to calm down and make it easier to speak, but that might actually make him feel more rushed or even ashamed.
Childhood apraxia of speech
Childhood apraxia of speech (CAS) is a disorder of the nervous system that affects a child's ability to say sounds, syllables, and words. With CAS, the brain has trouble telling the lips, jaw, and tongue what to do in order to produce speech. A child with CAS knows what she wants to say but can't make the sounds come out correctly and consistently.
If your child has CAS she may do any of the following:
- She makes inconsistent pronunciation errors that aren't due to her not knowing how to say the sounds yet.
- She can understand language much better than she can speak.
- She has trouble imitating speech, but her imitated speech is clearer than her spontaneous speech.
- She appears to struggle when she tries to make sounds or coordinate her lips, tongue, and jaw to speak.
- She has more trouble saying longer words and phrases than shorter ones.
- She has more difficulty speaking when she's anxious.
- She's hard to understand, especially for someone who doesn't know her.
- Her speech sounds choppy or monotonous, or stresses the wrong syllable or word.
If your child shows signs of CAS, it's important to make an appointment with a speech-language pathologist as soon as possible. Most kids with CAS will need professional therapy to be able to speak clearly.
What you can do: Talk slowly but naturally. Let your child take her time when she tries to speak. Your child's speech-language pathologist may have more tips for you to try at home.
When to seek help
If you're worried about your child's speech and language development, give your child's doctor a call or make an appointment with an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist. You may find you have nothing to worry about, but that's for a speech and language professional to determine. Also seek help if your child fits any of the following descriptions:
- Your child rarely asks questions or often lets adults do most of the talking, speaks only in short phrases and sentences, or seldom adds additional information to a story.
- Your child can't find the right word to express what he means – for instance, he may substitute words with related meanings ("cake" for "cupcake"), substitute words with similar sounds ("knob" for "knock"), or substitute visually related words ("clock" for "watch").
- Your child talks around words ("something we eat on" for table) or frequently says "thing" or "stuff" instead of using specific words.
- Your child uses long pauses between words and sentences.
- Your child drools when he mispronounces words or has difficulty eating or swallowing. (If this is the case, talk with his doctor.)
- Your child has trouble pronouncing many sounds or has trouble expressing himself. This could lead to reading, writing, and spelling difficulties if the problem isn't addressed.
In addition, if you have any concern that your child may have a speech or language delay due to a hearing loss, call his doctor, ask for a hearing evaluation by an audiologist at his school, or make an appointment with an ASHA-certified audiologist.
This article was reviewed by Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language-pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's website for more information or to find an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist near you.