Speech and language skills begin to develop right from birth all the way into adulthood. This is an ever maturing and changing part of life as kids grow up and I think sometimes we may take for granted that these skills will just develop properly on their own.
As parents, we make sure kids exercise, sleep and eat well for good health. We make sure they get regular check-ups and we nurse them when they get sick. Speech and language requires similar attention and care to help kids reach their full potential.
In this post I outline some basic things all parents can do to make sure their kids have a healthy speech and language development and get them ready for success!
1. Know your speech and language milestones
Plain and simple, if you don’t know when a speech and/or language milestone has been missed, you won’t be able to get the help you need right away. Any time a child does not meet a milestone this should be brought to the attention of a professional immediately. Not meeting a milestone could be an indicator of a speech and/or language problem or a red flag for a larger developmental concern.
You don’t need to think about speech and language milestones daily. This is a bit unrealistic (unless you’re a speech pathologist!). I recommend to families they use technology to help them out. Try setting an alert on your computer or phone to check the milestone chart at certain times during your child’s life (try every six months). When you receive these reminders, go back and check in with a reliable speech and language milestones chart, like the one provided on Talking Together’s website. These charts will let you know how your LO’s speech and language skills are developing and if there is any reason for concern.
If there is a concern, the earlier a child’s speech and language issues are identified and treated, the less likely it is that problems will persist or get worse. Early speech and language intervention has been shown to help children be more successful with reading, writing, schoolwork, and interpersonal relationships.
2. Don’t forget about the ears
When babies are born here in Ontario, Canada we have a wonderful program known as the Infant Hearing Screening. This program is also offered in select countries around the world. It is a fantastic program and a great first start to hearing wellness. With this fast, easy and painless test professionals can determine right away if a baby is born with a permanent hearing impairment. If a child does have a suspected hearing impairment parents are informed immediately after birth and further assessment will occur before 3 months of age, with intervention beginning before 6 months of age. If your baby does pass the hearing screen it then becomes a parent’s responsibility to monitor their child’s hearing health for any temporary hearing impairment as they grow up.
There are many reasons why a child may have a temporary hearing impairment as a baby, toddler or preschooler. Common colds and allergies can cause fluid build up in the ear, children may get middle ear infections (otitis media) or wax could build up significantly. All of these conditions will decrease a child’s hearing ability.
Since the early years are such a critical period for speech and language development it is important that a child’s hearing remains at it’s best so their brain can get all the input it needs to develop speech and language properly. Any interruptions in this input could cause problems with speech and language development.
If you suspect your child is having any trouble hearing you should tell your doctor or contact an audiologist. You DO NOT need a doctor’s referral to contact an audiologist and many private practices are happy to discuss your concerns over the phone to determine if an assessment is necessary.
Some signs your child may be having trouble hearing are:
- Wanting tv or music louder
- Misunderstanding directions
- Listlessness or unexplained irritability
- Pulling or scratching ears
3. The art of conversation
Research has shown that starting from early on children learn language best through high quality back-and-forth interactions with a responsive adult. All this really means is that kids learn language during conversations they are interested in!
This may sound so simple but actually in today’s busy world this kind of interaction seems to be hard to come by. With families leading busier and busier lives, and screen time continuing to invade households, it can be difficult to have an engaging conversation with a child.
Try to make the goal of 15-30 mins of daily, uninterrupted conversation with your kiddo. A time when it’s just you and them without phones, tv or computers. Without trying to make dinner, doing laundry or any other distractions. Think of it like giving your kids their daily language exercise!
Here are a few tips to get (and keep!) a conversation going:
- Choose a topic based on their interests or what they are doing at that moment
- Get face-to-face to make it easier to engage. If playing, come down to the floor. If sitting, be across from each other.
- Make comments about what your child has said to keep the conversation going (e.g., Child: “The car is fast!” Adult: “My car is the fastest!”)
- Take equal turns during the conversation. Wait and pause to give your child time to collect their thoughts and speak.
- Avoid asking too many questions. This is a sure fire way to get kids to clam up!
4. Vocabulary each day
The same way you feed children calcium for strong bones, you should feed them a word a day for strong language! Vocabulary skills have been linked to so many fantastic things it is one of the most basic ways to keep kids’ language growing strong.
Kids’ with larger vocabularies have:
- Stronger reading skills
- Better behaviour regulation skills
- Better social skills
- Do better academically
- Been linked with better outcomes in adulthood
Each day make a point of highlighting a new word for your child starting from around 6 months old. When they are little it should be pretty simple because all words will be new! As they grow it will get more challenging but that is part of the fun because you will literally be watching their vocabulary grow right before your eyes.
The easiest way to add new vocabulary is to introduce a new word during a daily routine. If they are getting dressed you could point out the “frill” on the dress for your toddler. When they are playing with trains you could point out where Thomas the Train’s “axels” are. At the park you can describe new prepositions (e.g., beyond, beneath, within, etc.) as they use the equipment.
Try and use the word a few times during the same context. Also try stressing, or emphasizing the word when you say it to highlight it even more in the sentence (e.g., “That is the frill on your dress. This frill is red. Mommy has a blue frill on one of her dresses”.). If your child is willing, encourage them to use the new term themselves (e.g., “Can you find any more frills on your dresses?”) Your child does not need to repeat this new word at all, but if they do that’s great! The goal should just be to engage them in discussion involving the new word. They will use it when they are ready.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask a professional
The one thing I have learned in my years of working clinically is that parents always have the right instincts when it comes to their children. Most of the people who end up in treatment with me recount things like “we were worried when he was younger but thought he would grow out of it” or “we thought something might not be quite right but everyone told us they knew a kid who had the same issue and is ok now”.
Today there are so many ways to gather information. A few clicks on Google and you can learn anything! This is a powerful tool but a dangerous one. With all this information at our fingertips we now have to be even more critical of what we read. Not everything on the Internet is from a reliable source. In fact there are many things out there that are just completely untrue. In addition, with social media it is now easier than ever to spread any message or information, regardless of the fact base. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for parents supporting parents online, joining social media groups as a source of strength and to share resources and ideas. However it is important to remember that these should not be used as a substitute for the advice of a professional.
If you have a question or concern about your child’s speech, language, literacy or communication skills, a registered speech-language pathologist is who to ask. You DO NOT need a doctor’s referral to call a speech-language pathologist and get an appointment. In fact, many private practices offer a free initial consultation to help guide you in the right direction or answer a quick question.
I wish all the families out there health and happiness!!
Apel, K. & Masterson, J. (2012). Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers.
Lowry, L. (n.d.). Build Your Child’s Vocabulary. Retrieved online on June 2, 2016 at http://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/build-your-childs-vocabulary.aspx.
Mroz, M. (2015). Hearing Loss in Children. Retrieved online on June 9, 2106 at http://www.healthyhearing.com/help/hearing-loss/children.
National Literacy Trust (2011). A research review: the importance of families and the home environment. Retrieved online on September 9, 2015: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/7901/Research_review-importance_of_families_and_home.pdf