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How to know if your Child has a Speech Delay?

posted on February 01 2017


Tips to help strengthen your child's communication skills

Advice from the frontline

Our series of interviews with experts continues.

You know that feeling when you meet a dentist and take the opportunity to ask them about a little (big) molar that's been bothering you. Well this series is a just like that.

Ali Best Speech Therapist with her family

Meet Ali Best, Speech Therapist, mother and owner of Little Talkers. Here she is in a family photo with her husband and three children. Ali is a Speech Therapist. With a focus on helping little one's who are slower to develop she has a great perspective on language skills in early childhood.

Ali believes that children should be encouraged to talk the way they are encouraged to walk. She says that it's important to remember the more we work with our kids to talk the more they will excel in language skills.

We may take language skills for granted but studies show that a vocabulary gap exists across socioeconomic groups. A recent Stanford Study discovered that by 3 years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. This could be due to lack of education and opportunities available to poorer families. You can read more about this study here. 

Having a general awareness of exposing kiddies to language, from reading to them to singing and using gestures while you slip in a new word to expand their knowledge is the number one thing we can do to help develop our children's language.

Most of the time they are like little sponges--- but sometimes they're not. In the UK one in ten children have difficulty with speech, language and communication. Here's a little guide on signs that there might be a problem. The earlier you detect a speech delay the easier it is to help.


What To Look Out For

General guide to signs of speech delays:

    • Doesn't smile or interact with others (birth–3 months)
    • Doesn't babble (4–7 months)
    • Makes few sounds (7–12 months)
    • Does not use gestures (e.g., waving, pointing) (7–12 months)
    • Doesn't understand what others say (7 months–2 years)
    • Says only a few words (12–18 months)
    • Doesn't put words together to make sentences (1½–2 years)
    • Says fewer than 50 words (2 years)
    • Has trouble playing and talking with other children (2–3 years)
    • Has problems with early reading and writing skills—for example, may not show an interest in books or drawing (2½–3 years) 



Sometimes it's not so cut and dry but by the time a child reaches 2 and a half, parents are probably aware of whether their child’s speech and language skills are developing ‘normally’. They might compare their friends’ children, read online blogs or no doubt be given ‘helpful’ observations from well meaning relatives. 


Ali Best Kids on swing in park having fun

Some examples: 

Trouble Making Speech Sounds

Changing sounds in words, for example, sun to ‘dun’ or car to ‘tar’. Using the wrong vowel sounds, for example, bed to ‘bad’. Finding longer words more difficult like, computer or hospital.

This could be due to something physical such as, muscle weakness (maybe cerebral palsy) or sending the messages from the brain in order to make the sounds (dyspraxia). Or difficulties learning how to make and use sounds correctly (phonological difficulties). Most children develop sounds in a similar pattern. Sometimes a child might find it difficult to learn their sounds and organise these sounds into words, yet this stage is an important part of learning to read and write.

Difficulty Understanding

Children learn to understand words long before they can use them. It’s a skill that’s acquired slowly. Some children find it difficult to understand what is being communicated to them as they need to be able to process the information given to them in order to make sense of it.

For example, ‘Katy, go and put your pink jumper on and your shoes under the table’ and you might find that Katy has in fact put on her shoes and forgotten about the pink jumper.

Other children may appear to have heard you because they echo or repeat what you have said, but in fact they never really act on what you have asked because they haven’t understood.

On top of trying to remember what they hear, children need to be able to understand the meanings of words, concepts like time and also the grammar and word order of sentences. That is a lot of learning in a short time and it can often be overwhelming.

Difficulties producing language

Thinking about what to say and how to say it effectively can be tricky for many children. All children will stumble over the use of words and the order in which sentences are made, but for some these errors can persist.

Expanding vocabulary

Children need to have easy access to the words they use on a day to day basis and to understand what those words mean. They need to be able to store them in their minds in an orderly way and find them quickly and use them meaningfully. Some children struggle to do this and their expressive language is affected.

Making sentences

Putting words together into sentences that follow all the rules of grammar is challenging even for some adults! However, for the most part children are clever in applying the many rules of English, sometimes applying the wrong ones to the wrong words, (we’ve all heard, ‘I runned’ or ‘The sheeps’) but having a good try at getting it right.

Sometimes these difficulties are persistent or take a longer time to achieve. Children might miss words out, so their talking sounds robotic. They might confuse other words such as, ‘he/she’. They might also find it difficult to put the words in the right order to tell a story or in fact find it difficult altogether to plan what they want to say and make sense of it to whoever is listening.

How to Help 


  • Encourage your child to communicate in any way he can- pointing, reaching and gesturing.
  • Keep sentences short. Use simple language. Talk about what the child is showing you or doing or what you are doing. Talk about things as they happen.
  • With very young children, imitate their words and sentences
  • Speak clearly to your child; add one or two more words to the child’s sentence. For example, ‘look truck’, you could say, ‘look big truck’
  • Children need longer than adults to put their thoughts together before talking. Give them time. Listen.
  • Maintain eye contact and count to five in your head before you fill any silences.
  • Try not to always anticipate what the child needs or wants. Offer choices to increase chances to communicate. For example, at snack time, “Lucy, do you want milk or juice?”
  • Use easy and familiar words to talk about everyday routines, for example, during snack time, “all gone” and “more juice?”
  • Praise the child’s efforts even if errors are made. Repeat back the correct version of what has been said. For example, “I breaked it” you might say, “Uh oh you broke it!”
  • Reduce the number of questions you use. Instead, comment on you child’s play, talk about what you see or hear.
  • Make learning new vocabulary fun and memorable. For example, if you are teaching the names of fruit, encourage the child to feel and smell various fruits as they learn the words.


  • Tips to Improve Understanding 

  • Gain your child’s attention when you want to talk to them 
  • Get down to their eye level or bring them up to yours
  • Touch their shoulder 
  • Use their name before you begin to talk
  • Keep instructions short
  • Keep instructions simple
  • Use key words
  • Pause between sentences
  • Be exciting to your child
  • Use gesture and facial expression: you’ll be giving clues about what your words mean


Toys to Compliment Speech Development


Panda Three Layer Puzzle great to compliment speech development


I’m a big fan of form boards or inset puzzles (Djeco have some beautiful puzzles). These are great for turn taking, naming and right/wrong judgements as well as encouraging little fingers to manipulate small objects.

Toys with quick turns such as a Jack in the box, car run, ball run or musical instruments are great ways of starting interaction and modelling early language (ready steady go/pop, ‘my turn’, colours, ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘loud’ ‘quiet’, ‘more’, ‘finished’ and so on)

Shape Sorter great toy for helping kids develop speech

Building Toys & Sorters

Building blocks or counters for colour sorting and labelling.

Lottos or other board games are so useful to practise developing turn taking, labelling objects, asking who’ questions. Galt Toys have a great range.

Foxy Tea Set by Djeco a great toy to help children with speech development

Ultimately however, imaginary play is the key to supporting your child’s language learning. Play is such an important part of developing language...coming up with the ideas, using these ideas, planning and sequencing events and interacting with others. Play Kitchens, Cafe, Supermarkets, Doctors, Vets, Babies, Tea Parties, Pirates, Superheroes, Fire fighters, Cops and Robbers, Cowboys, Fairies, Explorers, Space Walkers – the list is endless.

Follow your child’s lead, let him be the one who chooses the play. You model what he does, give him the language and play WITH him. Don’t hold back; get stuck in. Most children crave these moments of playtime with their parents and the opportunities for language learning are fantastic.


What if I’m worried about my child’s communication?

Speak to your Health Visitor or GP. She will be able to offer you immediate advice. If she feels it is appropriate, she will refer your child to the local Speech and Language Therapy Service for an assessment of your child’s communication needs.

Some parents like to rule out any underlying hearing difficulties especially if there is a history of ear infections or glue ear. Your Health Visitor or GP can refer you to Audiolgoy or the Ear Nose and Throat Consultant.

It is important to get a referral into the NHS, however if you prefer to be seen whilst you are waiting for an appointment, you could speak to an independent Speech and Language Therapist near to where you live.


Try these websites to help with your search: 

Help with Talking is Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice in the UK.

The association for Independent Speech and Language Therapists in the South of Ireland.


Thanks so much Ali for your guidance and tips! If you have any questions, leave them below, I am sure Ali would be happy to answer them. Or you can contact Ali directly or learn more about Little Talkers through her website: Little Talker NI 


Other useful online resources:

A charity which works to support the development of speech, language & communication in all children

The UK charity which supports children and young people with speech, language & communication impairments & their parents & carers.

A charity set up by ICAN, AFASIC & RCSLT. 

This website is full of information for parents and education professionals – ‘The first stop for children’s communication’.

Supports individuals & families affected by developmental dyspraxia.

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