How and when speech, language and communication skills usually develop
The stages below are based on typical development. However, it is important to remember that children often develop skills at different rates.
Some students with significant difficulties or disabilities may not achieve all the developmental stages or may progress through these stages more slowly than their peers.
It is important to recognise that all students can learn and extend their communication skills.
If you are concerned that a child is not developing skills at the ages outlined in this section, see below for what to do.
Speech, language and communication stages
Babies start learning as soon as they are born. A child’s first five years are critical to speech, language and communication development but speech, language and communication skills continue to develop after this time. The following information will give you an idea of what is expected at certain ages. The age ranges are general and there is some overlap. If you are concerned as a parent, please contact your doctor, your child’s teacher or a speech pathologist. You can find a speech pathologist on the Speech Pathology Australia website.
For more information and resources, see the Speech Pathology Australia Communication Milestones Kit and Speech Pathology Australia factsheets. Translated and easy English factsheets are also available.
In this video by Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (www.radld.org) they discuss when you should be concerned about late talkers.
This website by Charles Sturt University shows the average age children learn to pronounce English consonants correctly.
Australian parenting website Raising children and the NSW Health website have more information about developmental stages, strategies to support children’s development and behaviour and resources on child development. The Child Personal Health Record or Blue Book also has valuable information about a child’s health and development. It is available in many languages.
The child can:
● follow a 2-3 step instruction. For example, get the bread and put it on the table next to the cheese
● sit and listen in a group to a story or instructions
● understand words such as ‘first’, ‘last’, ‘might’, ‘above’ and ‘in between’
● understand words that describe time and order such as “first we are going to the shop, next we will play in the park”
● show an interest in the meanings of words, such as giving the meaning of simple words or asking what a new word means
● use sentences that are easy to understand. However, they may still have some difficulties with grammar. For example, saying 'sheeps' instead of 'sheep' or 'goed' instead of 'went'
● start conversations and take turns in longer conversations
● can retell a simple story or event
● use language for different purposes such as asking questions or making requests
● use most sounds correctly when talking, although they may have some difficulties with harder words such as 'scribble' or 'elephant'.
The child can:
● follow a longer 3-4 step instruction. For example, Get the big red book and put it on the bottom shelf next to the plant
● share and discuss more complex ideas. For example, why should we have healthy food in the canteen?
● remember stories and spoken information
● understand that the same word can mean two things, such as 'orange' the fruit and 'orange' the colour
● understand that different words can mean the same thing such as ’minus’ and ‘take away’
● use descriptive words like 'carefully', 'slowly' or 'clever'
● understand that words contain sounds
● match sounds to letters (For example, the letter ‘a’ says the sound ‘a’ as in apple).
The child can:
● understand complex instructions such as “Before you take the dog for a walk, get the dish, the one on the left side of the shelf"
● understand words which compare two items such as “Dad is taller than Mum, but Mum is taller than me”
● predict and draw conclusions, for example “Joe is carrying a wet towel and goggles, so maybe he went swimming"
● use and understand more complex sentences such as “the dog is chased by the cat”
● keep a conversation going by staying on topic, giving reasons and explaining choices
● give an oral presentation and listen to a presentation
● ask and answer ‘wh’ questions (what, where, who, why, when)
● use speech that is understood by everyone and can say most long words correctly (For example, helicopter).
The child can:
● understand other points of view, can agree or disagree and can think of arguments for and against. For example, we should use public transport
● give a summary of information they have heard
● use and understand descriptive language such as, “the coach roared like a tiger”
● talk about words, make jokes and carry out word play, for example, “This is my right hand, this is my wrong hand”
● participate in group discussions.
The young adolescent:
● has a range of friends and begins to socialise on their own
● can use language to discuss feelings
● uses longer sentences; usually 7-12 words or more
● understands and uses words from different subjects. For example, science (mammal, atom, examine, theory)
● knows how to use humour and sarcasm and know when others are being sarcastic or funny
● can change topic in conversations at the right time
● shows some understanding of idioms, such as “pull your socks up!"
The older adolescent:
● follows complicated instructions. For example, bring in the shopping from the car, after you put away the frozen food, put out the washing and then put away the rest of the groceries
● knows when they haven’t understood and asks to be told again
● tells long and very complicated stories where there are plot twists and numerous characters.
Spotting the signs: Should I be concerned?
Even though children may develop differently, there are skills that are expected by certain ages.
The information below will help you to understand more about what skills are expected for your child. If you’re concerned that your child does not have these skills, see 'Where to get advice and discuss concerns' below.
Children should be able to:
- use sounds, gestures or words
- copy simple actions like clapping
- look at people who are talking
- respond to their name.
Children should be able to:
- follow simple instructions (point to your nose, give me the ball)
- point to simple body parts, pictures, objects when named
- put two words together. For example, more milk
- play with toys. For example, feed teddy, toy car play.
Children should be able to:
- put three or more words together. For example, big dog eating
- have simple conversations with people
- ask questions using who, what, where
- follow two-part instructions. For example, give dolly a drink and put her in bed.
Your child’s speech should be clear to family members more than half the time.
Children should be able to:
- take part in conversations with other people about a range of topics
- look at people when they speak
- use long sentences (more than 4 words)
- follow simple instructions
- understand the words ‘in, on, under’.
Your child’s speech should be clear to people unfamiliar with the child most of the time.
When children start school, they suddenly need to use language differently to the way they use it at home. They need to listen to instructions given to a whole group, stand up in front of others and speak, learn about new topics and understand new words. Getting used to a new routine and learning how to interact with a variety of adults and children will be important. As children progress, the language demands of the classroom change and the child will need to learn new skills. Children with speech, language and communication needs may suddenly have new difficulties when moving from one stage of learning to another. The skills below will vary depending what stage the child is in. A child in stage one may be expected to tell a simple story whereas a child in stage 3 would be expected to give more details and use more complicated words. The NSW English syllabus contains more information about what students are expected to do at each stage of learning.
Children should be able to do all of these (as appropriate for their stage of learning) :
- tell or retell a story or event that ‘makes sense’
- understand what they read or listen to
- follow or remember spoken instructions
- take turns in conversations.
Language development is something that we think about during the early years of school. However, language and communication skills continue to develop throughout adolescence.
For some adolescents, communication problems may only become obvious in secondary school, due to increasing social and academic demands. With these students, language difficulties that were resolved during primary school, can reappear as literacy, learning or behavioural difficulties later on. Because speech, language and communication needs aren’t visible, they can be mistaken for something else such as learning difficulties or poor behaviour.
Below are some indicators that an adolescent may be having speech, language and communication difficulties.
● suddenly start having problems understanding what they need to do in class or for homework
● have difficulties coping with set reading and completing work
● have difficulties writing down their ideas in a clear, organised way
● find it hard to start new friendships and be unsure what to say or how to interact with new friends
● be sad or anxious
● report bullying or teasing
● have behaviour difficulties at school
● refuse to go to school.
Speech, language and communication difficulties can look like disobedience, boredom, laziness or lack of attention, particularly in high school.
In this video from Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (www.radld.org), Jake and his family talk about how his behaviour changed in Year 1 due to his language difficulties.
In this video from Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (www.radld.org), a high school student, parent and speech pathologist discuss what it is like to have language difficulties in high school.
What teachers might see
Students need to use different speech, language and communication skills at school than they use at home. Difficulties or skills seen at home may not be seen at school and vice versa. It is important for the family and school to talk about what they see at home and school. It is also helpful for parents to discuss their child’s strengths and difficulties, with their child’s teacher. By working together, the family, teacher and speech pathologist can identify how best to support the student.
The teacher might mention a student has difficulty with:
- understanding, starting and completing set work after a verbal instructions is provided. For example, instructions may need to be repeated several times, instructions are ignored or misunderstood
- taking part in activities where they have to talk
- explaining things
- making and keeping friends
- organisation, managing time and belongings.
Where to get advice and discuss concerns
Seek help early if you are concerned
In this video by Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder, parents talk about the benefits of getting support for their child with speech, language and communication needs.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. To help you to describe what’s worrying you:
o Look at Speech, language and communication stages
o Look at Spotting the signs: Should I be concerned?
o Note down what your child is doing well and where they seem to have difficulties
o Write down or record on your phone some of the words your child says, sentences they use or instructions they don’t understand. This will be useful to give to teachers and other people working with your child.
- Speech Pathology Australia has information about finding a speech pathologist in your area.
- Contact your local community health service or hospital. These are free services.
- See your local doctor
In this video by Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (www.radld.org), parents talk about the importance of getting help for their child and themselves.
How parents can help a child’s speech, language and communication skills
In this video by Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (www.radld.org), parents talk about what strategies they use to help their children with speech, language and communication needs.
Play and conversations are important ways for a child or adolescent to develop their speech, language and communication skills.
Things you can do to help:
● talk to a child about their interests or what they are doing at the time
● allow plenty of time for a child to respond after a comment or question
● expand on what a child has said to help build longer, more complex sentences. For example, if they say “We are going shopping” you could say “Yes, we're going shopping because we need more bread”
● comment on what a child is doing. For example, “You are pushing the car fast"
● if a child can’t think of what to say, give the words they need to use. For example, when they want to join in a game, say, 'Ben, you could say ‘Can I join in?’
● demonstrate how to say a word or sentence instead of telling them that what they’ve said is wrong. For example, if they say “I roded my bike really fast” you can continue the conversation by adding “Great, you rode your bike fast, how fast did you go?”
● use a variety of words in your conversation. For example, Instead of saying "you look tired", you could say “You look exhausted, how was soccer?”
● give a child lots of praise for talking, using new words, asking questions and joining conversations
● don't ask too many closed questions that can only be answered with only yes or no
● if a child suddenly changes topic, redirect them. "Let's finish talking about soccer before we talk about school".
Things you can do to help a child follow instructions and conversations:
● speak a little more slowly
● use shorter sentences
● break instructions into separate steps. For example, ‘after you finish breakfast, (pause), go and get your shoes, (pause), then go to the front door’
● give more time to respond
● use gestures, pictures, photos or other visual images as well as words
● check for understanding by asking a child to repeat what they have to do
● minimise the use of slang sayings and idioms (pull your socks up, it’s a piece of cake, sitting on the fence)
● explain new words by linking the word to an easier word. For example, a beverage is a drink, I like to drink beverages, my favourite beverage is water, what beverages do you like?
● use a new word often in a variety of situations
● try and explain a new word with simple words and by giving examples and non-examples. For example, nutritious food that is good for you and helps you grow, fruit is nutritious, lollies are not.
When you speak another language or dialect of English
When a child is learning English as an additional language because their first language is not English or they speak a dialect of English such as Aboriginal English it can be harder to tell if the child has speech, language and communication difficulties. Children may have speech, language and communication difficulties in their home language or home talk before they start to learn English as an additional language. It is important to get help early if there are concerns. Here are some important points:
- home language or home talk is the language spoken most of the time by family members for everyday activities and interactions at home
- many children speak more than one language without difficulty
- Aboriginal English is not a speech delay or difficulty. Aboriginal English is the way Aboriginal people use English. It is a part of their identity and home talk. It should be encouraged and built on. More information can be found in the Speech Pathology Australia’s fact sheet Speech Pathology and Indigenous Children.
- some children will have speech, language and communication needs in their home language.
- speech pathologists may use interpreters when looking at a child’s speech, language and communication skills in their home language. This information is used to make decisions about the child’s communication skills in their home language and English.
- learning English as an additional language is not a reason to ignore concerns about the child’s speech, language and communication needs
- learning English as an additional language is not a reason to be more concerned about the child’s speech, language and communication needs.
It can be difficult for families and other professionals to know if a child has speech, language and communication needs, always see a speech pathologist if you are concerned.
It is always important for parents to use the language they are most comfortable with at home when talking to their child. Strong skills in a child’s home language help a child learn a second language.
This video from South Eastern Sydney Local Health District explains why it is very important to speak to a child in their home language.
What you might see when a child is learning English as an additional language
It is common for children who are learning English as an additional language to show some or all of the following. It may be difficult to separate these behaviours from those seen when a child has speech, language and communication needs:
● Silent period: Children are often very quiet, speaking little as they focus on understanding the new language.
● Interference and transfer: A child may make an English error due to the direct influence of their home language. When learning to talk the child may mix grammar rules or their sentence may contain words from each language.
● Code switching: A child or adult may suddenly change the language they are speaking to use words or sentences from the other language.
● Language loss: As the child learns English, they may lose skills and fluency in their home language.
Most children can learn two or more languages at the same time without difficulty. If you are worried, look at Speech, language and communication stages, Spotting the signs: Should I be concerned? and compare the child's skills in their home language to what is written. If you are still concerned talk to other people supporting the child and see Where to get advice and discuss concerns.
If a child does have speech, language and communication needs and uses more than one language, it is important for the family, speech pathologist and child’s teacher to talk about the best ways to support the child.
Other ideas to help you can be found in the Speech Pathology Australia's Raising Bilingual Children factsheet.