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Child Development 101: From Cooing to Conjugating

March 1, 2010
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At 15 months, Devon can say "ma" for mother, "bah" for ball and "doos" for juice. In a town 300 miles north of Devon's home, 4-year-old Sam doesn't utter a word. In order to communicate with their son, Sam's parents must establish direct eye contact with him and speak very slowly. He seems to understand, but as a child with a learning disorder, Sam has a longer road ahead of him with regard to speaking.

There are benchmarks young children should be achieving when learning to speak. But can a parent always tell if their child is on the right path toward meeting the milestones for language development? Knowing the milestones can help. Standards widely accepted by pediatricians and speech development experts include the following: 

  • By age 1: A child should be able to use a handful of single words to request things. The words may not always sound the way they should, as in 'dada' for 'daddy.'
  • By age 2: A child should be able to combine two identifiable words into phrases. "No, mama" is a favorite at this stage.
  • By age 3: She is using three- and four-word phrases.
  • By age 4: Children should be able to use five- to seven-word phrases and readily engage with adults in conversation.

Hedieh Neydawood, a speech language pathologist at the Child Development Institute in Los Angeles, notes that parent/child engagement is the core ingredient in some of the newer approaches to language development.

"There's a big push toward what we call a ‘natural environment,'" Neydawood says. "So it's about interaction not in a clinic but at home, in a park, at school or wherever kids normally interact." Neydawood adds that the days of structure and harsh corrections are gone. "You don't want a toddler to feel as if their communication attempts are somehow bad. For instance, if they see a cat and say ‘doggie,' a parent can gently say, 'Oh, that's a kitty. You mean kitty.'"

First 5 LA Research Analyst Christine Ong emphasizes that each child is different and there may be some variation in how soon they reach a certain language development benchmark. "If your child is not producing language by a certain age, it doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem, but you should see your pediatrician anyway for a possible referral to a speech expert," Ong said.

For more information about speech and language development milestones in children click here to go to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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