Healthy Speech & Language Development

Should you worry if your 2 and 1/2 year old isn’t talking?  At this age, what’s typical is broadly defined. It’s important to keep track of your child’s milestones and seek professional guidance, if appropriate, to make sure delayed speech isn’t a sign of a more serious problem.

Q:  My daughter is 2½ and isn’t talking much. She uses a few small words and points when she needs something, but she doesn’t string together words to form sentences like some of her peers do on the playground. What’s typical for her age?  Should I be worried she isn’t talking yet? How can I tell if she has a problem?

A:  At such a young age, the range of what is typical is broad. Between the ages of two and three, kids experience a tremendous growth spurt in language skills. During this period, most kids can follow simple two-step instructions, such as “pick up the ball and bring it to Daddy.” Some kids may have a 200-word vocabulary while some are combining words in short phrases and sentences.

In general though, at age 2½ a child…

  • Uses about 450 words (mostly labels/nouns and verbs)
  • Gives his/her first name
  • Uses past tense
  • Uses plurals
  • Combines nouns and verbs
  • Understands simple time concepts such as “last night” and “tomorrow”
  • Refers to himself/herself as “me” rather than by name
  • Tries to get adult attention verbally (e.g.,  “Watch me!”)
  • Likes to hear the same story repeated
  • Use “no” or “not” in speech and may say “no” when he/she means “yes”
  • Talks to other children as well as adults
  • Begins to express his/her behavior verbally, rather than just physically (e.g., says “I’m tired,” instead of just acting cranky)
  • Answers “where” questions (e.g., “Where is the doll?”)
  • Names objects he/she comes into contact with regularly
  • Uses short sentences to announce what he/she has done or will like (e.g., “Me do it,” or “Me want to jump”)
  • Matches three to four colors
  • Holds up fingers to tell age

Milestones obtained from Pro-Ed, 2nd edition

If your child isn’t meeting some of these milestones, try providing environmental support and implementing conversational strategies that promote healthy language development. These strategies are useful for all kids, regardless of whether or not they exhibit signs of a speech-language delay.

Environmental Support

Create opportunities around the house for your daughter to practice her budding language skills. For instance, place favorite toys on higher shelves so she has to ask you if she wants to play with them. Don’t be afraid to make things harder for her. Changing your child’s environment isn’t “cold-hearted” parenting. It’s a way to encourage her to use her words more frequently to communicate her needs.

Try some of these other strategies:

  • When your daughter asks for something like cereal, pretend to forget to give her something important, e.g., a spoon. By not providing everything at once, your daughter is motivated to ask for the missing object.
  • Be goofy and mix things up to see if your daughter can call you out on your humor. For example, zip up a jacket backwards or place socks over her hands and wait for her to notice.
  • Sit in front of her when singing or playing so that she can see your face as you talk. This allows her to watch your facial movements and connect them with the sounds of the words you are speaking.
  • Expose your child to many new experiences and talk about them before, during and after the event.
  • Sort toys by category into boxes so that when cleaning up, you and your child can take turns naming (and sorting) things into categories.
  • Allow your child to use new words by letting her finish your sentence during different activities. For example, in the car, you can say, “Buckle your… ”

Conversational Strategies

The content and quality of your conversation strengthens your child’s ability to communicate effectively. Take the time to listen to your child as she attempts to talk, and praise any attempts at communication.

Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Focus on the content of your daughter’s message, and don’t worry about how she is saying it. Mistakes are okay at this age and are part of the developmental process.
  • Get down to her eye level to talk about things that interest her, and let her lead the conversation.
  • Label objects and actions that you encounter. Talk about what you are doing, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Use activities such as feeding, dressing, walking, driving and going to the store, doctor, zoo or park as opportunities to model language.
  • Highlight words that your child leaves out by repeating the sentence and saying the omitted word with more emphasis.  For example, if your child says, “Eat cookie,” you can say, “Eat the cookie.”
  • Use a lot of repetition when talking and playing with your child. Children benefit from being exposed to the same information multiple times.
  • Avoid “wh-” questions. Instead of asking, “What did you draw?” say, “Tell me about your picture.”
  • Allow plenty of time for your child to respond before repeating a question or giving a cue.

If you’re worried that your child’s speech and language abilities aren’t developing typically, see a speech-language pathologist (SLP) certified by the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association who can help in areas of expressive and receptive communication, including articulation, language, social communication and even feeding/swallowing difficulties.

The speech-language pathologist may do some of the following:

  • Administer standardized tests of receptive and expressive language
  • Analyze how a child uses language in various situations
  • Determine factors that may be slowing down language development
  • Counsel parents on the next steps

During the evaluation, the SLP will be assessing the child’s speech-language and social communication skills (e.g., turn-taking, gesturing, making eye-contact) in comparison to developmental norms in other children of the same age throughout the country. The assessment of a young child should be play-based and include parents in the process. The SLP should also address parent questions and concerns in an interview and observe the child communicating with her parents to make recommendations, when appropriate.

After completing the evaluation, the speech-language pathologist may do one or more of the following:

  • Give suggestions for stimulating language development
  • Ask that the parent and child return if they continue to be concerned or find that the child is still not progressing after a few months
  • In some cases, the speech-language pathologist may recommend that the child and parents become involved in an early intervention program and receive speech-language therapy

Adapted from the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association

Whether your child’s language abilities are typical or not, seeking help from a professional early on can be a good way to attain peace of mind, or in some cases, to detect more multi-factorial problems, including autism, ADHD, selective mutism or developmental delay. Remember, early intervention is key to assuring your child’s quicker communication success.

Care Coordinators can arrange a free 30 minute Care Consultation so you can explore options with an expert. We invite you to call or email our Care Coordinators at 650.688.3625 or to set up an initial Parent Consultation appointment.

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