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Communication - What To Expect Through The Years

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Written by: Sarah Barton, Playgroup Chair

Communication is a vital part of our day-to-day, but we often don’t miss it until it’s not there. You’ve experienced this in many different ways: a text won’t go through, you don’t speak the same language as someone, your phone service is spotty… all frustrating inconveniences. But what about when it’s your child who isn’t able to communicate with you? As a Speech Therapist, I have witnessed how anxiety-provoking and frustrating it is for a child who is unable to communicate his wants and needs and for a parent who is unable to understand. Sometimes this lack of communication is just part of raising a little person who is working out how to do things, but sometimes not talking (or not talking clearly) is an indicator that something else is going on.

Here’s what to expect and when:

  • 8-12 months: Your child should be consistently responding (though probably not verbally!) to their name. They should begin to follow simple requests when accompanied by a gesture. Though the true first word should happen around a child’s first birthday, they are likely shouting for attention, babbling often, and beginning to imitate some basic sounds.

  • 12-24 months: Your child’s understanding, or ‘receptive vocabulary,’ is growing! They should now point to familiar toys and people when named, can follow simple directions, and can point to basic body parts. Their expressive vocabulary is growing too! They are now able to use about 50 words (often with insistent gestures; they want you to ‘get’ it!) and are beginning to put two words together. Though they are producing more sounds, don’t worry if you still aren’t able to understand more than half of what they say, especially if the context is unknown.

  • 2- 3 years: This age brings a lot of talking and a lot of emotions! By age 3, your child can understand simple opposites, understand 2-step directions (though might not always follow these commands…hello toddler stubbornness!), and understands new words every day. Your child should have a word for about everything in their ‘world,’ can talk about things that aren’t in the room, understand and use spatial concepts (like in, on, out) and use 3-4 words together. They are asking more questions and using some regular plurals. Your child is becoming easier to understand, especially to people that know them; about 50-75% of what they say should be understood by listeners.

  • 3-4 years: The learning continues! Your child is now able to identify colors and shapes. They can answer simple who, what, and where questions (though oftentimes not truthfully… I mean unless your family cat knows how to cut their sister's hair…), use pronouns, and asks when and how questions. Your child can put 4 words together into short sentences and can use 3-4 sentences to talk about what happened during the day. Don’t worry if you are seeing some grammar mistakes (Like, I goed to school) and some sounds are being mispronounced, though by age 4, you should be able to understand just about everything they say.

  • 4-5 years: Wasn’t this child just a baby yesterday?? Now they can understand sequence words like first, next, and last, and time words, like yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They can follow longer directions, including classroom directions (like “draw a circle around something you can eat.”) Your child should be able to understand just about everything said to them and can tell a short story. They are now quite the conversationalists, keeping the conversation going and changing how they talk depending on the listener and environment. They should be able to make all speech sounds, though they might mispronounce some harder sounds (like, l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh, and th).

Now that we know when our kiddos are ‘on-track’ and when they might be a little behind, what can we do? First, discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. Let their doctor know what your child is and is not able to do, socially, expressively, and receptively. Ask your doctor for a referral to a speech-language pathologist. If your child is under 3, they could be eligible for services through the state, called Early Childhood Intervention (ECI). You may also receive an evaluation and services through a private practice clinic, a children’s hospital, or a home health company.

Sarah Barton, M.S., CCC-SLP

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