Parents often wonder how well their child’s speech and language skills are developing. Discovering any problems early gives a child a better chance to learn how to communicate successfully. A child who has difficulties can work with a speech-language pathologist (S-LP) who is specially trained to help people with communication problems
What are the most common communication problems in children?
Articulation problems — this is a difficulty with pronouncing sounds to make words. There are many reasons children have difficulty in making sounds. These include hearing problems, poor muscle control, cleft palate and lip or learning problems.
Language problems — these problems can be expressive (what the child says) receptive (what the child understands) or a combination of both.
Voice disorders — a problem with a child’s voice is determined by whether the voice matches the speaker’s age and gender and has a pleasant sound to it. A pleasant voice is one that is not too loud nor soft, neither breathy nor harsh and not too nasal or hypo-nasal (how we sound when we have a cold).
Fluency disorders (stuttering) - With this type of problem, the child has difficulty with the flow or rhythm of speech. The smooth flow of speech can be interrupted in a number of ways: repeating sounds, syllables, words and phrases, or prolonging sounds.
Early Speech and Language Milestones
By age three to four, most children will:
- use sentences of 4 to 6 words
- understand and answer simple wh-questions (who, what, where, when)
- show an interest in how and why things happen and how people feel
- ask questions, usually who or what questions
- follow concrete, two to three-step directions (e.g., “get your socks, put them on and then come downstairs”)
- talk easily about daily activities, especially what they are doing, just did or will just do (e.g., what they did at the playground)
- talk to themselves and their toys while playing
- tell a simple story or sing a song
- give directions like “fix this for me”
Seek the opinion of a speech-language pathologist when:
- You have any concerns about your child’s reading, writing, listening, memory, speech or social skills.
- your child has a limited vocabulary
- your child seems to talk less well than most children the same age
- your child often does not seem to understand
- your child stutters
- other people have a hard time understanding what your child says
Don’t Be Concerned When
- Your child has difficulty with later-developing speech sounds such as r, s, l, th, and consonant blends such as sp (spoon). A good rule of thumb for this age (3 to 4 years) is that strangers should be able to understand at least 80% of what your child says.
- Your child makes grammatical errors such as over-generalizing word endings to the irregular exceptions (e.g., goed for went, runned for ran, tooths for teeth, mouses for mice). Simply rephrase what your child has said, modeling the correct form, without drawing negative attention to his error.
- Your child appears to be stuttering unless the repetitions of sounds and words are accompanied by facial grimacing, obvious physical tension, breaking eye contact or other type of avoidance behaviour. Preschoolers frequently go through a stage of “normal non-fluency. Because they are undergoing such a rapid expansion of vocabulary and sentence complexity, at times their mouths literally cannot keep up with their brains. Practice patience, slow down your own rate of speech and focus on the content of what they are saying versus how they are saying it.
What You Can Do To Help
Talk to your child whenever you're together. Tell her about an interesting story you read in the newspaper. Describe a conversation you had at work with a friend. When you go shopping together, describe what you're buying. Get in the habit of narrating everyday chores.
Ask open-ended questions. If you ask your child a broad question such as "What did you do at the park?" you'll get a much more detailed answer than if you ask a yes or no question like "Did you have fun at the park?"
Revisit a favorite old story. Bring out one of your child's most dog-eared, battered books and read it aloud yet again, only this time pause at key points to let her supply the words that come next. Or read the story and purposely change key details to see if she corrects your "errors."
Ask your child to describe a video or TV show. Children love to talk about things they know something about and enjoy. One of the easiest ways to get a conversation started is to ask your child what's happening on her favorite television program.
Have your child tell a story using a wordless picture book. This activity not only builds speaking skills but encourages your child to think of herself as a real reader even if she can't recognize a word.
Play family story time. One person starts making up a story ("Once upon a time, there was a little dragon that lived in a cave on a big hill"). Then another person continues the story, and so on. Let your child chime in whenever she wants or prompt her with questions about the story.
Beyond Baby Talk, Kenn Apel & Julie Masterson, Prima Publishing, 2001
Childhood Speech, Language & Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know, Patricia McAleer Hamaguchi, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995
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