Language Development Stages

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Sometimes we need to go back to the basics. May is National Speech Language and Hearing Month. I had the privilege of chatting with Megan Peveto, who is a speech/language pathologist who specializes in toddler language development. Megan brings us back to the basics when it comes to language development for neurotypical children. We discussed language development stages and what it means to be an analytic language processor vs a gestalt language processor. Read our conversation below.

A Conversation on Language Development

Tara: Hi Megan. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Megan: Absolutely. I’ve been an SLP for over a decade now, and about five years ago, I transitioned from the school setting to home health, which completely rocked my world—in a good way! I’ve always had a passion for working with toddlers, probably because of my background in babysitting and volunteering with children at church.

Tara: I can totally relate! I was that babysitter who would gather extra worksheets and play school with the neighborhood kids. But like you, engaging with children has always been close to my heart.

Megan: That is so sweet. I was never that advanced when it came to babysitting, but I always enjoyed the play, engagement, and interaction with kids. So it’s always come naturally. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to working with toddlers. They’re at such a crucial stage of language development, and I love being a part of their journey.

Tara: That’s maybe why you settled in to become interested in that toddler level too, with all the play background. I’m excited to delve into typical language development in babies and toddlers, especially since it’s your area of expertise. Let’s geek out over this together!

Megan: Absolutely! It’s essential to understand typical language development, even for those of us who primarily work with children with special needs. It gives us valuable insights into how language naturally unfolds.

Language Development Milestones

Tara: Let’s start at the beginning. When do babies usually say their first words?

Megan: Usually, babies utter their first words between 9 and 12 months, but there’s considerable variability among children. By their first birthday, they should have at least one or two consistent words in their vocabulary.

Tara: And what about symbolic or exclamatory sounds like “uh-oh” or animal noises? When do those come into play?

Megan: Again, it varies. These sounds can emerge before, after, or at the same time as their first words, depending on what the child is exposed to. Let’s say mom does a lot of “uh-oh” around the house, it would be natural that it would be baby’s first word because they hear it all the time. For therapists, encouraging imitation of these sounds can be a crucial first step in language development.

Tara: That’s a great point. It’s essential to define what constitutes a “word” for this age group, including gestures, signs, and symbolic sounds.

Megan: Absolutely. We shouldn’t underestimate the communicative value of these early forms of expression.

Tara: So, how many words should kids be saying by age one?

Megan: On average, one word is typical by age one, with vocabulary expanding to around 50 words by age two. But remember the definition of a “word” is flexible and can include gestures, signs, and sounds.

Tara: So what can parents do to keep inventory if they can’t think off the top of their heads? If they’re struggling to know if they have 50 words? What can they do to find out?

Megan: We all record our kids. So go back, watch your videos, look at your kid. If you’re in the middle of a speech therapy evaluation, pull out your phone and you and the speech therapist can look through different videos of your kid interacting and engaging with different toys and activities. You can interpret and see based on those if this is something that the kid does every time this happens. Or keep track with pen and paper.

Tara: Now, let’s talk about putting two words together. When does that typically happen?

Megan: Ah, the language explosion! Between 18 and 24 months, toddlers often experience a burst in language development, transitioning from single words to combining words. This phase, known as “fast mapping,” demonstrates their growing ability to understand and use language. Which is why sometimes you randomly hear a toddler say a word and you’re like, where did that come from?

Tara: It’s fascinating how quickly they absorb and apply new vocabulary during this period.

Megan: Absolutely. However, it’s crucial to remember that every child develops at their own pace, and some may not follow the typical trajectory. In such cases, early intervention and support are essential.

Tara: Definitely. Trusting your instincts as a parent and seeking professional guidance can make a significant difference in a child’s language development journey.

Megan: Absolutely. Whether it’s through pediatricians or directly reaching out to speech therapists, parents should feel empowered to advocate for their child’s needs.

Gestalt Language Processors Vs. Analytic Language Processors

Tara: I’d like to make a quick note about language development in children with autism. While we’re discussing typical analytic language development, it’s important to acknowledge that many autistic children are Gestalt language processors (GLPs). Unlike the typical trajectory where children gradually build up from single words to phrases, GLPs may start with phrases before using single words. This means that not all aspects of typical language development apply to them in the same way. So, if you’re working with an autistic child who can say phrases but struggles with single words, it’s likely because of their unique processing style. Just something to keep in mind as we explore language development further. If we’re going back to language development, in that typical path, what types of words do kids start to string together at first when they’re putting two words together?

Megan: Children often learn new words through exposure to early verbs and prepositions that they’re already familiar with. However, it’s important to remember that children absorb language even when it may seem like they’re not paying attention. So, just because you don’t think a toddler has been exposed to a certain word, doesn’t mean they haven’t heard it elsewhere. When assessing a toddler’s language development or identifying potential delays, it’s crucial to consider their exposure to various vocabulary. Common verbs like “eat,” “drink,” and “sit,” along with basic prepositions such as “up” and “down,” are examples of words we might expect them to know.

Tara: You can kind of picture kids saying “more”, “more cracker” or some of those typical first combinations, like “Mama Up”.

Megan: When toddlers use two-word phrases, they may accompany them with gestures, like reaching and saying “up,” which serves as a simple expression of their desire to go upward. For example, if a child says “mama” while reaching, it conveys the idea of “mama up,” representing an early form of combining words into phrases. Don’t discredit those signs and gestures.

Language Development Delays

Tara: So when should parents reach out, when they start to maybe have concerns about their child’s language development?

Megan: First instinct. Follow your gut always. Sometimes your pediatricians are going to give you the whole, well, let’s wait and see. Just keep asking. Eventually, they’re going to send the referral.

Tara: That’s great advice both for language development in general, or language delays. And also for parents who are wondering even about autism. Go with your gut and pursue it. Yes. Don’t be set back by a doctor saying, “Oh, but he’s a boy. Boys develop later.”

Megan: Dare I say, even if you get one evaluation done by a speech therapist and you’re not happy with it, you can always get a second opinion.

Tara: So who is the person they’d reach out to first?

Megan: Typically their pediatrician. I do believe with the opening of so many speech therapists going into their own private practice, a lot of times if you’re planning on doing private pay, you can probably just contact them directly.

Tara: Just remember, if your gut is nagging you on it to keep pursuing. Even if you called somewhere where they have speech therapy, they could guide you also. One more of the things that I had wanted to talk to you about was your handbook.

Megan: I am so proud of it because it is going to help so many people. It’s one of those things that whenever I first started working in the home health world, more specifically with the toddler population, I was just at a loss. There’s so much information out there for parents, but there’s not a lot for the therapist. This is something that parents could purchase and look into and get use out of, but it’s really for the therapist so that whenever they go into homes or into the clinics or wherever it is that they’re serving, they can have some confidence. It gives them something tangible to also provide parents and daycare teachers for specific information.

Tara: That’s always really good to have is something to kind of back up what you’re talking about and information that you can give to parents or caregivers to kind of help them understand and keep going with the strategies that you’re using. Where can people find you, Megan?

Megan: They can visit my website

Also, on Instagram, Facebook and Tik-Tok: @theslpnextdoor

I also have a podcast, The SLP Next Door

To listen to this conversation click here

Related Topics:

Building Blocks For Teaching Language

Early Language Development in Autistic Children

How to Help Young Children with Autism Communicate

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a picture showing a variety of visual supports for children with autism

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