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Speech and Language Development in Children

The development of speech and language in children is incredible to witness. From the earliest sounds to forming complex sentences, each step signifies their growing ability to communicate. It’s really important to remember that children develop their speech and understanding at different rates, but knowing what is typical at different ages will help you to identify any problems early.

Take a look at our guidelines below which includes communication milestones, what to look out for, and ideas on how to support your child on their speech and language journey.



0-6 months

By six months babies will usually:

  • Turn towards sounds,
  • Make sounds, such as cooing and gurgling,
  • Watch your face when you talk to them, 
  • Smile or laugh when other people do, 
  • Be startled by loud noises.


How to support your baby at 0-6 months:

  • Make sure your baby is close to your face when you talk to them, so they can see you clearly,
  • Talking in a sing-song voice will help to keep baby interested in what you’re saying,
  • Copying sounds your baby makes will encourage them to make more and is the beginning of them understanding the turn-taking in conversations.


What could be a cause for concern: 

  • Baby not giving eye contact when spoken to, 
  • Baby not not being startled by loud noises,
  • Baby not smiling back at someone who smiles at them.



6-12 months

By 12 months babies will usually:

  • Look at you when you speak or their name is called,
  • Point, look at you, make noises to get your attention,
  • Begin to understand words like ‘up’ or ‘bye bye’, especially when a gesture is used at the same time,
  • Start to recognise the names of some familiar people/objects, such as ‘mummy’ or ‘milk’,
  • Enjoy songs and rhymes; smiling, laughing, or getting excited when sung to,
  • Take turns in conversations, babbling or cooing back to an adult.


How to support your baby at 6-12 months:

  • Playing games like peek-a-boo and singing action songs will help your baby to develop their speech, language, and attention skills,
  • Talking to your baby about what you’re doing is a great way to expose them to lots of words,
  • Using actions alongside words will help your baby to relate what they do and say with the vocabulary they need. For example, pick up their bottle/cup as you say ‘drink’, or wave when you say ‘bye’,
  • Pointing to sounds will help your baby to develop their awareness of the world around them and improve their listening skills,
  • Put aside time each day to spend playing and looking at picture books with your baby.


What could be a cause for concern: 

  • Baby not responding to noises by 9 months,
  • Not pointing to things they are interested in by 12 months.



12-18 months

By 18 months children will usually:

  • Understand many more words than they can say, 
  • Understand simple sentences such as “where’s Mummy?” or “let’s go”,
  • Use babbling and some single words while they play, sounding like they are speaking in sentences even though what they are saying doesn’t make sense,
  • Enjoy listening to music and singing,
  • Move their body to music,
  • Say up to 20 single words, 
  • Enjoy looking at picture books with an adult.


How to support your child at 12-18 months:

  • If your child doesn’t have the words to say something, repeat back to them what you think they are trying to communicate, for example, you could say “you can’t reach teddy? You want teddy?”,
  • Give your child choices to encourage them to speak, “would you like water or milk?”,
  • Talk to your child in simple, short sentences,
  • Follow their lead when playing, comment on what your child is playing with or looking at, talk about what interests them.


What could be a cause for concern: 

  • Not seeming to understand some of what you say to them by 18 months,
  • Not saying their first word by 18 months.



18-24 months


By 24 months children will usually:

  • Understand simple questions and instructions, such as “get your coat” or “where’s your tummy?”,
  • Use 50 or more single words,
  • Begin to form short sentences of 2-3 words, such as “bye bye daddy” or “more milk”,
  • Copy sounds and words,
  • Be able to concentrate on simple stories with pictures.


How to support your child at 18-24 months:

  • Repeat and expand on what your child says to show them how words can be put together, for example, if they say “milk”, you could say ”milk gone”, “more milk”, “milk please”,
  • Talk about everyday activities throughout the day, making sure to pause so that your child can also comment or respond to what you’re saying,
  • Read books together, look at the pictures and describe them, ask your child if they can find things in the pictures,
  • When you don’t understand what your child is trying to say, this can frustrate them, so encourage them to use gestures or actions, and try to be patient as you wait for them to finish what they are trying to tell you.


What could be a cause for concern: 

  • Not saying 25 recognisable words, 
  • Being unable or slow to follow simple instructions.


2-3 years

By 3 years children will usually:


  • Understand simple ‘what’, where’ and ‘who’ questions,
  • Ask lots of questions,
  • Understand more complex instructions, such as “get mummy’s shoes please”,
  • Put 4 or 5 words together in a sentence, such as “I want more cake” or “I can see my mummy”,
  • Start to use plurals by adding ‘s’ to words,
  • Listen to and remember simple stories,
  • Use a growing number of words and sounds, but sometimes have difficulty with certain words such as spider or banana, shortening them to ‘pider’ and ‘nana’. 


How to support your child at 2-3 years:

  • Keep repeating stories and songs; repetition will help your child to understand and remember words,
  • Use actions, pictures, puppets to bring stories to life, 
  • Children may sometimes sound as if they are stammering or stuttering as they struggle to get their words out. Try not to interrupt your child, instead tell them to slow down and take their time. Sounds like sh, ch, th and r can also be tricky for many children at this age,
  • Keep adding words to children’s sentences to increase their vocabulary. For example, if your child says “stroke cat”, you could say, “stroke cat’s soft, black fur”, 


What could be a cause for concern: 

  • Only saying single words instead of short sentences,
  • Relying on being shown what to do rather than being told,
  • Only being able to understand a small amount of what your child is saying,
  • They point to or show what they want rather than using words.


3-4 years

By 4 years children will usually:


  • Start to understand the meaning of ‘why’,
  • Be able to describe events that have happened using basic sentences,
  • Listen to longer stories and be able to answer questions about them,
  • Understand and use time, number and colour in their speech, for example ‘yesterday’, ‘three cups’, ‘blue car’,
  • Begin to be able to plan games with others,
  • Still make mistakes with tense, such as saying ‘waked up’ instead of woke up, or ‘drinked’ instead of drank.


How to support your child at 3-4 years:

  • Make time at the end of the day to talk with your child about their day,
  • Play games involving opposites, like ‘big and small’ or ‘hot and cold’,
  • Pretend play with your child, letting them take the lead and comment on what they are doing or saying as they play, 
  • Play games that mean your child takes on the role of mummy, daddy, grandma etc to help them talk about new situations and experiment with new vocabulary.


What could be a cause for concern:

  • They are unresponsive or slow to follow instructions,
  • They find it difficult to articulate their thoughts into words,
  • Their language is hard to understand or the words are jumbled.



4-5 years 

By 5 years children will usually:

  • Understand more complicated sentences and sequences such as “first we put on our shoes, then our coats, then we can go to the park”,
  • Understand more complex words such as ‘might’, ‘in between’, ‘first’ and ‘last’,
  • Ask what a new word means or be able to describe the meaning of simple words,
  • Use well formed sentences, but may still make grammatical mistakes, such as “I go-ed to my bedroom and sleeped”,
  • Use most sounds effectively, but may have difficulties with complicated words such as hospital or spaghetti.


How to support your child at 4-5 years:

  • Ask open questions to encourage children to say more than yes or no,
  • Play board games that involve taking turns which will help their listening and concentration skills,
  • Keep introducing new words to expand their vocabulary further, 
  • Have fun with rhymes, songs and words. This is really helpful for the skills needed for reading and writing,
  • Build a good relationship with your child’s school or preschool so you can work as a team to support their learning.


What could be a cause for concern:

  • Difficulty with complex sentences, 
  • Difficulty organising ideas in order, 
  • Difficulty with abstract ideas such as time,
  • Missing out words in sentences, 
  • Talking about lots of different topics at the same time.


5-7 years

By 7 years children will usually:

  • Understand descriptive words like ‘gently’, ‘kind’, ‘carefully’,
  • Be able to discuss more complex ideas,
  • Learn that the same word can mean different things, for example – bat,
  • Learn that different words can mean the same thing, for example – sad and unhappy,
  • Use language for different purposes; asking questions, describing, persuading etc,
  • Be comfortable using language in different social situations.


How to support your child at 5-7 years:

  • Make time to talk together with your child about their day at school / your day at work etc,
  • Continue to ask open ended questions,
  • Continue to help expand their vocabulary, using words they may not have heard before.


What could be a cause for concern:

  • Using short sentences, sometimes in the wrong order with words missing,
  • Responding to just one part of an instruction,
  • Finding it hard to understand language involving the past or future,
  • Finding it difficult to make up stories, both in speech and writing,
  • Struggling to learn at school,
  • Struggling to make and keep friends,


7-11 years

By 11 years children will usually:

  • Use long and complex sentences,
  • Be able to keep a conversation going,
  • Start conversations with people they don’t know,
  • Understand other people’s points of view and be able to say why they agree or disagree,
  • Understand comparative words, for example, “it’s warmer than yesterday”.


How to support your child at 7-11 years:

  • Help your child to be a good listener by showing good listening skills yourself,
  • Encourage them to use new words and understand their meaning. If you don’t know the meaning of a word yourself, look it up together in a child friendly dictionary,
  • Have as many conversations as possible, encouraging them to contribute as much as you


What could be a cause for concern:

  • Struggling to join in with group conversations,
  • Difficulty in making up stories, and the stories may be muddled,
  • Finding it hard to understand the meanings of words,
  • Struggling to understand language about the past and future, and finding it hard to make predictions,
  • Difficulty understanding a conversation when it involves new ideas or people who are not present,
  • Struggling to learn at school and finding it hard to understand what they have been told to do.


In wrapping up our exploration of speech and language development in children, it’s truly fascinating to witness the incredible journey your little ones embark on from those initial coos to crafting intricate sentences.

Cherish these milestones, knowing that every babble and giggle signifies a step forward in their communication skills. Remember, children progress uniquely, so arm yourself with the knowledge shared in this guide to gauge what’s typical at various ages. Keep a watchful eye on these developmental signposts, as they not only celebrate your child’s progress but also act as beacons to catch any concerns early on.

For any questions or worries about your child’s speech and language, don’t hesitate to consult with your trusted healthcare professional. As you guide your child through this linguistic adventure, create an environment rich in conversation, play, and exploration, because, in the world of speech and language, every word is a stepping stone to their future.