Understanding Early Childhood Speech and Language Development: How Is Your Child Doing?

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

URL: http://www.wholefamily.com/parent-center/item/1590

Date: April 2013

This series was written in consultation with Rachel Bromberg, MACCSLP – Speech and Language Therapist


Why Speech and Language Development?

For parents, the area of speech and language development is probably the hardest to evaluate. When evaluating physical development, the process is easier. We know when a child is able to sit, stand, walk or run.

Language development is less clear. My son talks – but does he talk enough? My daughter speaks clearly – but does she speak clearly enough? For this reason, speech and language difficulties are often the hardest for the average parent to detect.

In order to help you understand the area of speech and language development, we at WholeFamily have prepared a series of articles that will help you to better understand your child’s development. This series will include the following topics:

  • What does the term “speech and language development” mean?
  • A checklist to help you evaluate your child’s progress.
  • An understanding of which professionals to contact if your child may have speech or language difficulties
  • The answers to some commonly asked questions about early childhood speech and language development
  • Activities to do with your child to help stimulate speech and language development.

Our first article is about the basics:


Speech and language are actually two separate areas of development, which can be divided into four separate areas.

SPEECH DEVELOPMENT: Speech development can be divided into articulation and quality of voice.

Articulation refers to a child’s ability to produce speech sounds. You might hear professionals using the slang “artic” among themselves to refer to difficulty in producing speech sounds. A child with this difficulty uses the wrong sounds when speaking, often at either the beginning or end of the word and/or sometimes leaves certain sounds out completely. Examples would be a child who says “wabbit” instead of rabbit or ” ha” instead of hat. Each specific speech sound normally develops by a certain age. For a two- year-old, the mistakes mentioned above are acceptable and are to be expected. A five- year-old, however, should already be able to say these words correctly.

The term quality of voice refers to how the speech sounds when it comes out. Is it loud, soft, fluid, fast, slow or just right? Of course, all children sometimes speak too loudly, softly, slowly, etc… The questions when evaluating quality of voice is: Does the sound quality of the child’s voice interfere with normal everyday activities or make the child’s language difficult to understand? Overall, is the quality of the child’s voice appropriate for a child of his age?

A term you may hear discussed in connection to speech (both articulation and voice quality) is“oral-motor development.” This term relates to the physical make-up of a person’s mouth and his ability to use it properly. While this area is not the same as speech development, it is often used in connection with speech, since if a person can not physically use his mouth properly, it affects his ability to speak.

LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT: Language development refers to how your child understands, organizes, speaks and uses words and can be divided into two categories: receptive language and expressive language.

RECEPTIVE LANGUAGE: The term receptive language refers to how well your childunderstands what is said to him. Way before a child can verbally answer a question, he can show that he understands you by following a simple direction or pointing to a specific object. Usually a child can follow simple directions and run to find an object, well before he will start using words.

EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE: The term expressive language refers to your child’s ability to express or communicate his thoughts and needs to others. As a child grows, expressive language is used to refer to how well the child uses words; however, this term also refers to gestures or any other non-verbal forms of expression. Sign language, for example is expressive language and does not involve speaking. Pointing to a candy is an appropriate use of expressive language for a one and a half-year-old. For a three-year-old, appropriate expressive language is to ask for a candy by using words.


Here is a tool to help you check up on how your child is doing. Print out the form that corresponds to your child’s age and complete it later.

I would suggest starting with the “younger” list in which your child’s age appears and then moving on to the “older” list. (If your child is three, then start by checking out the list for ages two to three and then go on to ages three to four. If your child is turning four next week, then you may just want to do the three to four section and work backwards if necessary.)

After using the checklist, note if the tasks your child has difficulty with belong primarily to a specific area of speech and language development. This will help you know what areas to work on with him and may be relevant information to pass on to professionals, if you feel a professional consultation will be necessary.
I will use the following abbreviations:
R= Receptive Language
E= Expressive Language
S = Speech (Note: I will be giving you basic guidelines on which sounds develop by a certain age. Please keep in mind that experts differ on the appropriate ages for the development of specific sounds.)

If your child does not have all of these at the appropriate age – do not worry, children develop at different paces.
If your child has acquired at least some of these skills – everything is probably fine.
If your child does not yet have any of these skills – then still do not worry – although I would then suggest discussing his or her development with the appropriate professionals.