speech and language development

What you talkin’ bout? A quick guide to Speech and Language Development

The most common question I am asked when others find out I am a Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) is “Listen to Johnny! Is that normal?” Depending on how well I know them, my answers range from “Nope” to “There is a wide range of typical speech and language development”.

All joking aside, what is normal anyway? This is always an awkward question because we all have our definition of normal. For some it’s using a cutesy baby voice to talk to their “precious” 5-year-old, for others it’s debating the likely hood that there is life on Mars with their Kindergartner.

Normal and typical are two different things. With that being said, every child is unique and develops at his or her own rate. Language development is a complex process that depends on so many factors.

I know you are probably thinking, “Well that’s great, but now what?”  Here is a quick guide to speech and language development to check if your child is on-target for average development….

Speech (the sounds and patterns you use when you talk):

You should be able to understand about 25% of what your 18-month-old says. By age 2, you should be able to understand half of everything they say. Three year olds should be 90% intelligible to their parents or caregivers and 75% intelligible to a stranger.  Having speech sound errors isn’t too much of a concern until 3-4 years, unless you can’t understand what your child is saying the majority of the time.

Language (What your child says is expressive language. What your child understands that others say is receptive language):

A child’s average sentence length should be the same as their age (e.g. 18 months average 1.5 word sentences, 3 years: 3 words).  By age 1, most children can follow simple commands with gestures (High five, sit- down).  A 2 year old should be able to follow simple 2-3 step directions about half the time and answer simple questions.

So what can you do to help???

The answer seems so simple but it is so important: TALK, all the time, everywhere and about everything. Channel your inner thirteen-year-old girl and talk a lot.  At first it may seem awkward to have one-sided conversations with your 2-month-old, but the more you do it the easier it is.

Start simple by naming their body parts and articles of clothing while dressing (“I’m putting your shirt over your head!”, “You are biting those toes!”).  The more experienced talker can describe the subtleties of the changing fall foliage through their car’s windshield while waiting in line for carpool.  You know you are doing it right when your older child rolls their eyes or puts on headphones!

And now if you see that mom (or dad) describing the pros and cons of tomato sauce versus paste to their infant in the grocery aisle, they aren’t crazy! They are just expanding vocabulary! That is vocabulary development in action.

You can also encourage your kiddo at any age to expand their sentences by repeating what they said and adding adjectives, adverbs, or proper grammar.  Don’t expect them to repeat you, just model it.

Reading books is another great tool for language development.  Use reading time as an opportunity to have your child point to pictures and even tell the story to you.  Re-reading a book over and over (and over and over…) helps your child develop pre-reading skills and vocabulary.

What do you do if you’re still concerned???

If at any time you feel like something isn’t right, contact your school-district’s Parents As Teachers program (birth-5), Early Childhood Special Education office (3-5 years) or school based Speech-Language Pathologist (5 and older) and they will point you in the right direction. Or you can refer to What to Do If Your Child is Showing a Developmental Delay for more info.

By: Tricia Kaelin, MS, CCC-SLP


Tricia is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and mommy of two spirited boys. She lives in the St. Louis metro area with her husband and sons. She had lots of hobbies before having a Kindergartner and a toddler. Now she just tries to contain the chaos!



Emily Bettis, MOT/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and mother. She has been working with children birth-5 since 2008 and has been a mother since 2013. Emily is the founder and author HeyMommies.com

8 thoughts on “What you talkin’ bout? A quick guide to Speech and Language Development

  1. As a volunteer tutor in elementary school one of my favorite learning experiences for kindergarten and first graders is to take a picture book and take turns, page by page, making up the story with the child. You can just see how timid the child is at first that they can really just say anything and how delighted they are by the end of the book that they have helped to tell the story.

  2. Can you advise when it’s appropriate to drop the “parentese” (the high-pitched voice recommended for newborn and young babies)? My infant is almost 9 months and I still find myself going in between my regular tone of voice and a higher pitched tone to talk with her.

    1. Hi Emily! I’d say that anywhere between 1 1/2 to 2 would be an appropriate time to fade that out. I’d say at 9mo it’s still appropriate to be doing that some but also good for your baby to hear your “normal” voice. Reading books and just narrating your actions are great ways to incorporate this. Hope that helps!

  3. Thanks for the post! Do you have any insight as to common stuttering issues or concerns? My daughter is two and a half and has an incredible vocabulary but seems to stutter quite a bit. I’ve talked with mommy friends and we’ve discussed how sometimes the physical can’t react as quickly as the mental- but I wasn’t sure where the line for concern would be?

    1. Under three is a little early to be super concerned about dysfluency (stuttering). Young children will often repeat parts of words and sentences. If you child begins to show other physical manifestations such as grimacing, tensing muscles or strain getting the words out you might want to contact First Steps or your local school district’s Early Childhood department.

      1. Thank you for your follow-up! I did a little research after I asked and read this article and found similar suggestions as far as the straining/tense muscles. Thanks for the confirmation! She can certainly sing like a champ! 🙂

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