Last reviewed 17 July 2020

Rebecca Fisk explores how adults can support children in the important early stages of speech development.

Learning to talk takes time. Being able to communicate and be understood is important for our social interactions, friendships and our relationships with others. Children learn to communicate their needs as a baby through crying and vocalising, as well as facial expression and movement. As children develop, they pick up sounds from the environment around them (providing they do not have hearing loss) and tune into people’s speech. Learning to talk clearly is a process and adults can make a huge difference to its success. It is not uncommon for children to struggle to develop speech and language skills. Many children have delayed language skills and some will go on to have long term communication difficulties. This can have an impact on their life chances.

Very young babies will make noises to get adult attention or will gurgle to themselves. You can help them focus on this early sound development by playing interactive games such as peek-a-boo, which is a turn taking game, singing songs and rhymes, talking with them to tell them what is happening, and encouraging eye contact.

As children get older, they will start to put strings of sounds together and babble. They may look at or point to objects that they want, which are all methods of communicating. You can help them by copying their babble and naming the objects as they explore them. Repeating simple words to accompany frequent events, such as saying ‘up’ when you lift them up or ‘bye-bye’ when you wave to someone. (Communication Trust). Repetition helps them to learn the words in context. Before you know it, they will be trying to copy those familiar words, often pointing to items and requesting new words too.

Adults can support children by spending time engaged on the same activity and talking about it. It helps to get down to the child’s level and comment on what they are doing without making assumptions. For example, “I can see you are turning the wheel” is more open ended than “Are you driving your car?” This allows space for the child to contribute their own ideas and encourages more speech than a closed question with a yes or no answer. Giving children lots of different experiences of people, places, and objects will widen their vocabulary by providing a language rich environment. This also gives children things to talk about with their adults and allows them to better understand how things link together. For example, if you are reading a book together and the child points to the dog on the page, you might be able to remind them of the dog you saw in the park the day before and support them to develop a conversation about that experience.

Speech immaturities

Most children will have speech immaturities as they learn to make speech sounds with different parts of their mouths, tongue and vocal cords. They may drop initial sounds or final sounds of words or miss some sounds out altogether. Often, they say similar sounding words with the same number of syllables. Examples from my own children include saying ‘kinny’ for kitchen (same number of syllables and some similar consonants) and ‘Beya’ for ‘Bella’ (again, same number of syllables, with the sound ‘l’ being said as a ‘y’, commonly noticed when children try to say yellow and say ‘yeyo’ instead.) If you can understand what the child is trying to say, be encouraging and model back the correct pronunciation, for example, “Yes, it is in the kitchen”. Some speech sounds develop later than others, such as ‘r’, ‘l’, ‘th’, ‘sh’ and ‘j’. This modelling can be applied to helping them form sentences too as they learn the order that words go in to make sense. It is important not to over correct children’s speech or to interrupt. Be responsive and if you really don’t understand what they are trying to communicate, keep encouraging them to show you, to point or to say it in a different way. Children can feel overwhelmed if they are asked lots of questions, so it helps to encourage their talk by showing interesting, smiling,and listening attentively. This can then progress to a more in-depth conversation, where children learn that speaking is about voicing their needs, thinking, experiences and feelings.

Where to go if you are concerned about your child’s speaking

Afasic has a list of communication skills to look out for in babies and pre-school children and suggestions if you are concerned.

You may notice that some children get very frustrated when they communicate and are not understood. This can lead to them not contributing to conversation so much, especially in groups. Also, if they often miss out important words or sound very muddled and disorganised in their talking could indicate an underlying speech, language or communication difficulty and you may wish to seek further advice. In addition, some children may stammer when speaking, and it helps to be patient, keep paying attention, and avoid interruptions.

It is important to seek help and advice if you are worried about a child’s communication development ( where you can find progress checkers for different ages and stages: The Local Offer in your area should signpost you to the local speech and language therapy services and tell you about what to do, including how to appropriately seek further professional help, assessment and support. The main thing is to talk through your concerns. You can do this with your health visitor, GP or preschool staff. Why not access the activities which support parents to develop their child’s language and learning skills through lots of fun activities to do together and through the government campaign.

Keep talking and interacting with your child, showing them that you want to hear them speak and listen to what they are saying. Communication skills support our human connections.