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Talking and Comprehension

When words don’t come easily to your child, here’s what to do.

Your child’s first words are a joyous memory, often lovingly recorded in the baby book.

For the most part, children begin transitioning from babble to words around age one. But some children don’t start talking in lock-step with their playmates or around the same time as their older siblings did, making it a potential source of stress and concern for parents. By age two, children might progress to say about 50 words, and some go far beyond that. By age three, most children can talk in complete, albeit simple, sentences, says Brie Schindel, speech language pathologist at Chidren’s C.A.R.E. Services in Lethbridge, Alta. But there’s that word – most. What if your child isn’t one of those verbose, chatty wunderkinds?

Don’t pressure them, says Brie. “Parents should definitely encourage their children’s communication skills but encouragement is best if it’s not in the form of pressure to say words or answer questions on command.” Instead, encourage communication in a natural way during your child’s day. She suggests:

  • Get face-to-face with your child so she can see your facial expressions and watch your mouth form sounds and words.
  • Use simple language and an animated voice to grab your child’s attention.
  • Speak slowly and give your child a chance to respond.
  • Use repetition to help your child understand the meaning of the word in a natural context.

Professional help

“Early intervention is so important to minimize the effects of delayed language development,” says Brie, who prefers to err on the side of caution. About 50 percent of children who are late talkers will catch up without professional intervention, but for the other half, a referral to a speech language pathologist may be appropriate. Target Word, a widely used program designed by The Hanen Centre, defines late talkers as children who:

  • know fewer than 10 words between 18 and 20 months of age
  • know fewer than 25 words between 21 and 24 months of age
  • know fewer than 50 words or no two-word phrases between 24 and 30 months of age

Despite these limitations, late talkers have relatively good comprehension, play, social, motor and cognitive skills.


A child who doesn’t produce a lot of language isn’t likely to understand a lot of language either. However, even before their first birthday, many young children understand commonly used words such as ‘no’ and ‘dada’ and can also follow simple instructions (‘give that to me’). Their comprehension will increase along with their language skills.

Possible risk factors for speech delay

  • premature birth
  • history of ear infections
  • developmental delay such as autism or down syndrome
  • family history

Published June 2010

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