It’s thrilling to hear a child’s first words. When we hear precious words like “hi,” “mama,” “dada,” “doggie” and “more,” we know that our child has entered a new and exciting stage of development. Our child can talk.

We also know the worry and concern we feel when a child doesn’t say those first words around the first birthday or doesn’t put words together by the second birthday. There is reason to be concerned. Early problems with speech and language development in the preschool years can lead to later problems with behavior, reading, schoolwork and social skills.

Speech and Language are Different

Speech refers to the sounds we make to form words. Speech includes articulation, fluency and voice. It is common for children to have trouble saying sounds when they first learn to talk. However, most children speak clearly by the time they start kindergarten. Many young children also repeat words or sounds between the ages of 2 and 6 while they are learning language. This is known as stuttering. Most children will stop stuttering and become more fluent as they get better at talking.

Language refers to understanding what other people say as well as the way we put words together to communicate ideas. Language includes listening, talking, reading and writing. Children who listen and talk well tend to read and write well.

Speech and Language Development

Children learn speech and language in a predictable manner. For example, children start to use about 50 single words before they start putting words together. Children use certain sounds correctly, including p, b and m, before they start using sounds that are harder to make, such as l, r and s. Bilingual children develop speech and language skills in the same manner as children who only speak one language. But, each child is different and develops speech and language skills at a distinct pace. A chart with developmental milestones is available at

Indicators of Speech and Language Disorders

Children may have speech disorders, language disorders or both. The problems may be mild or severe.

Children with speech disorders may have problems:

  • saying sounds and words clearly so others can understand.
  • speaking fluently.
  • using a voice that is not too loud or too soft.

Children with language disorders may have problems:

  • understanding or using new words.
  • following one- or two-part directions.
  • adding endings to words, as in “two balls” or “daddy’s phone.”
  • putting words together in sentences.
  • understanding and talking to others.

Speech and Language Disorders and School Problems

Children with speech and language disorders who are not treated early may have trouble in school. They may have a hard time reading and writing. Their grades may suffer. They may act out. They may experience difficulty getting along with others and making friends. Luckily, there’s a lot parents can do to help their children develop speech and language skills from the get-go. And professional help is available if concerns arise.

Speech and Language Advice for Parents

You can build your child’s speech and language skills and prepare your child for reading right from the start. Talk to your child, read books together, tell stories, sing songs and point out and name things.

Speech-Language Pathologists Can Help

Get assistance early if you have any concerns about your child’s speech or language development. Don’t wait and hope your child will outgrow the problem. A speech-language pathologist, also called an SLP, can help. Look for an SLP who has the certificate of clinical competence (CCC-SLP) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Find an SLP near you at

Tips for Improving Your Child’s Speech and Language Skills

  • Talk a lot to your child. This will help your child learn new words.
  • Read to your child every day. Reading also helps your child learn new words and ideas. Point to the pictures and words in books. Ask your child questions about the book you’re reading together.
  • If you speak a language other than English, speak to your child in the language you know best.
  • Listen and respond when your child talks. Repeat and add to what your child says.
  • Encourage your child to ask you questions.
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