Is my child a late talker?

Speech pathologists are very familiar with working with children who are a late talker who have a speech and language delay. However, for parents who are less familiar with them, it can be quite concerning.

What is a late talker?

Late talkers are toddlers between the ages of 18-30 months who have certain speech characteristics. Generally, they have a limited spoken vocabulary for their age, but have a good understanding of language. They typically have age appropriate play skills, motor skills, thinking skills, and social skills. Research estimates that about 15% of toddlers are late talkers. If children take longer to talk beyond this age range, they may have a speech or language delay.

What is a speech delay?

A speech delay is when a child might use words and phrases to express ideas but have trouble articulating speech sounds or use the wrong sounds within words, making them difficult to understand.

What is a language delay?

A language delay is when a child has the ability to say words clearly, but only has a small vocabulary and may be unable to put more than two words together.

Speech and language milestones:

The following milestones can be used to help determine whether your child’s vocabulary is appropriate for their age. If they have not yet reached these milestones, it is recommended that they see a speech pathologist or assessment to discuss if further support is required:

  • 18 month olds should use least 20 words, including different types of words, such as nouns (“baby”, “cookie”), verbs (“eat”, “go”), prepositions (“up”, “down”), adjectives (“hot”, “sleepy”), and social words (“hi”, “bye”)
  • 24 month olds should use at least 100 words and combine 2 words together. These word combinations should be generated by the child, and not be combinations that are “memorised chunks” of language, such as “thank you”, “bye bye”, “all gone”, or “What’s that?”. Examples of true word combinations would be “doggie gone”, “eat cookie”, or “dirty hands”.

What are the outcomes of a late talker?

A study by The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) on Late Language Emergence had some interesting findings. They indicate that about 50 to 70 percent of late talkers are able to catch up and show normal language development by late preschool and school-age. However, the study also reports that late talkers are more prone to develop language and literacy difficulties later on.

These are the possible outcomes identified by the study for late talkers who don’t get adequate support:

  • At age five, these children showed lower scores on complex language skills, such as narrating a simple story.
  • At age seven, they had reduced performance when it came to general language ability and grammar.
  • At ages eight and nine, they show poorer performance in reading and spelling.
  • At age 13, they had lower scores on aggregate measures on vocabulary, grammar, verbal memory, and reading comprehension.
  • At age 17, they showed poorer scores on vocabulary/grammar and verbal memory factors.

What you can do to help:

If you are concerned that your child may be a late talker, it is never too early to seek help! You can do this by consulting a GP and getting a referral to see a speech pathologist about your concerns. You could also have your child’s hearing checked to make sure they are hearing sounds at a variety of volumes and pitches. This is important, as even slight hearing impairments are known to cause difficulties with the development of speech and language.

There are also many other things you could do to try and get your child to talk:

  • Talk, talk, talk. This can include reading books, talking about your day, and labelling items around your house. The more your toddler is exposed to language, the more they will eventually pick up.
  • Get face to face and play with your child. It’s important for parents to engage with their children meaningfully.
  • Expand your child’s vocabulary. This means adding words to what your child says. For example, if your child says “car”, comment back saying “green car” or “fast car” to build their vocabulary.
  • Try sign language and use lots of gestures. Research shows sign language and using gestures may help your little one with later language development.
  • Ask the right kinds of questions. Start with questions that will elicit a “yes” or “no” from your toddler, like “Do you want a drink?”. From there, work your way up to questions that include a choice, like “Do you want a chocolate or a lolly?”

It can be concerning when parents feel that there is something wrong with the way that their child speaks. However, being a late talker or having a speech and language delay is quite common with children. Speaking to a speech pathologist can really help you understand and to start to get things back on track.

By Kristina Mateševac

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