Toddler’s Speech & Language Development: What to Expect

I get a lot of questions about toddler speech & language development to my email inbox each week. Concerned parents are wondering: What’s “normal?” There is a VERY WIDE range of “normal” or “typical” when it comes to the development of speech & language in the toddler years (which I refer to as approx 18 months to 3 years). Here are some GENERAL guidelines based on the research on “typical” speech & language development in toddlers. Important note: Don’t get too hung up on the “exact age” for the skills listed below. Think of them as the median, or middle, of a 3 month range or so.  For example, neither of my children had 50 words at 18 months. However my daughter had probably 75+ words at 19 months so within a month of the age listed. Though I list one age, it’s really a range give or take a month or two either way. 
PS: main focus on the word 'growth'

A quick note on some terms:

  • Expressive language: what a child says
  • Receptive language: what a child understands
  • Articulation/speech: how a child says speech sounds and how well he is understood by others
  • Social/pragmatic: how a child uses language (verbal and nonverbal) socially to communicate

1.Important skills that should be mastered before toddlerhood (18 months):

  • Infants should be babbling regularly between 6-9 months of age (read more about babbling)
  • Infants should take part in back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • Infants should take part in sharing/reciprocal interactions like pointing, sharing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • Toddlers should be pointing at objects of interest by 14 months
  • Toddlers typically say their first word somewhere between 9-15 months of age.
  • Toddlers between 12-18 months should understand the words for common objects and people in their lives
  • Toddlers between 12-18 months should be able to imitate simple gross motor movements like clapping hands or stomping feet (yes, this IS important for speech/language development!)

2. By 18 months, the average child has 50 words in his vocabulary and will start to put two words together to form short sentences once he hits this 50 word vocabulary milestone. {expressive language}

3. By 18 Months the average child will be able to answer simple questions (Where is the doggie? ), follow simple directions involving common items (Get the ball), and point to pictures of common objects in books when asked (ball, book, dog, cat, etc). {receptive language}

4. By 18 months, the average child should be able to follow your pointing with his gaze  (look at things you point to) and should be playing “pretend” with some objects (pretending to drink from a cup) and should play along side (not “with”) other children, also known as parallel play {social/pragmatic/play development}

5. By the second birthday, the average child has between 200-300 words in his/her vocabulary and is able to produce 2+ word sentences using a variety of nouns, verbs, and adjectives {expressive language} and use his language for a variety of functions such as requesting, protesting, asking questions, commenting, etc and should be playing along side (but not “with”) other children {social/pragmatic development}.

6. Between age 2-3 the average child should be mastering how to follow simple directions that include some basic concepts like in, under, on, out, etc., follow 2 step commands like “Get your jacket and bring it to me,”  understand and answer who, what and where questions; identify a variety of verbs by pointing to them in books/pictures, and understand family labels like grandma, aunt, baby, etc. {receptive language}

7. At age two, we expect you (the parent) to understand around 50-75% of what your child says, despite age appropriate speech sound (articulation) errors. That means, you should be able to understand most of what he says even though he can’t say all speech sounds correctly yet. {articulation/speech development} Toddlers cannot produce all the sounds in their language yet. The development of the sounds system (all the consonant and vowel sounds we put together to form words) takes years to develop. Laura Mize from teachmetotalk.com provides a great simple summary on speech sound development in toddlers in her post “Working Toward Intelligible Speech in Toddlers.” I couldn’t have said it better myself so here it is (and make sure to read her entire post, it is excellent):

Bilabials, or lips sounds, /p, b, m/, are usually the first consonants to emerge. (FYI – This is the reason that “Mama” and “Papa” are universal parent names!) Other consonant sounds such as /n, h, w/ are also “early” developing consonant sounds. Most children, or 75%, have mastered using these consonant sounds and all vowel sounds in words by their second birthdays. Consonant sounds that generally emerge before and around age two-and-a-half are /t, d, k, g/ and “ng” and /s/ at the ends of words. Some sources report that /f/ also emerges aroundtwo-and-a-half; some cite between three and four years. Later developing consonant sounds that emerge during the preschool years are /r, l, z, v/ and “ch, sh, j.” The sound “th” is usually the last consonant sound, mastered after age five.

Another great chart I like to refer parents to regarding speech sound development is the Early, Middle, Late (EML) chart based on research by Shirberg. There are no ages on this chart…it just shows an idea of what speech sounds to expect to develop first, next, and last (generally).

EarlyMiddleLate8chart

8. By the third birthday, the average child has around 1000 words his his/her vocabulary and is producing sentences 3-5+ words in length. {expressive language} and using those words to request, protest, ask questions to gain information (WHY mommy??), comment, etc. and should be starting to play WITH other children and not just beside them {social/pragmatic development}.

9. By the third birthday, the average child can answer a variety of “wh” questions (who, what, where, how) more logically, can answer questions that require critical thinking skills such as “what do you do when your hands are dirty? What do you do if you are cold?”;  follow a variety of commands incorporating different verbs, concepts, and nouns; listen to longer stories and understands concepts such as big/little, same/different, in/under, etc. {receptive language}

10. By the third birthday, you, as the parent, should be able to understand 90-100% of what he says, despite those age appropriate articulation errors we’ve talked about above. For example, you may hear “I want the wed cah to do in duh baf” and understand that he is trying to say “I want the RED CAR to GO in THE BATH.” He still cannot say /r/, /g/, or “th” but you can still understand him. He also should be saying the beginning and ending sounds of words and should be using many different speech sounds in different parts of the words (beginning, middle, end). {articulation/speech development}

The Problem with “Average” or “Typical”

Whenever I post about “typical” or “average” development or “what to expect” at different ages, I always get comments like “Well, I didn’t talk until I was three and I was fine!” or parents who comment because they are very worried that their child hasn’t met a certain milestone listed. Here is the thing: I am giving you information on “average” development. This is all based in research on how an “average” child will develop speech/language skills. We all know that many people will be outside of the “average” range in any area of development. And that can be ok too! We are not all cookie cutter copies. We all develop at different paces. 

Wanna know a secret? I didn’t talk much until I was three. 

And yes, I am “fine.” I went on to get a master’s degree and became an SLP. But not EVERY child who develops outside the “average range” will be fine. Some will, and some will not. Developing outside the “average” range can indicate the child needs some help.

When Should I Worry?

Honestly? DON’T! Worrying doesn’t solve ANYTHING! But what you CAN DO is watch your child for some specific red flags that may indicate the need for an assessment by a speech-language pathologist or other professional. Go to my post on RED FLAGS for more information.

How Can I Help My Child?

I get emails weekly from parents wanting to know how to help their child talk more. Here is what I have to say about that:

  • If you are truly worried about your child, have him/her seen by a certified speech-language pathologist! FOLLOW YOUR MAMA (or PAPA) GUT. It won’t hurt. It will either ease your mind or get your child any help he/she may need. Win/Win! Wondering how to find an SLP? Check out my post on How to Find an SLP. NOTHING ON MY SITE OR OTHERS CAN REPLACE THE INTERVENTIONS OF A SPEECH PATHOLOGIST so if you are concerned, you need to find one.
  • Feel free to check out my series How to Help Your Child Talk or check out my eBook with the same title that you can find HERE.
  • Feel free to also check out fellow SLP Laura Mize’s site teachmetotalk.com. It is FULL of amazing information, tips, books and DVD’s that can help you help your child. (I get no compensation for recommending Laura’s site or products).

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References:

American Speech-Language Hearing Association Website (2011). How does your child hear and talk? Birth to one year. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/01.htm (6-1-2014)

Lanza, J.R. & Flahive, L.K. (2008). LinguiSystems guide to communication milestones: 2009 Edition. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems, Inc. Retrieved fromhttp://www.linguisystems.com/pdf/Milestonesguide.pdf (6-1-2014)

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links.

About Katie

Katie is a licensed, credentialed and certified pediatric speech-language pathologist and mom to three (5, 3 and 9 months). Her passion about educating, inspiring and empowering parents of children with all abilities led her to start her blog Playing With Words 365 where she shares information about speech and language development, therapy ideas and tips, intervention strategies and a little about her family life too. Katie has been working in the field of speech pathology for 9 years and is certified in The Hanen Centre’s It Takes Two to Talk ® and Target Word ® programs and holds a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In addition to blogging and being a mommy, Katie works part time in her small private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Lauren Tewierik says:

    Thank you for continuing to provide such great information in a clear and relaxed way. Milestones can cause so much worry and it is great to be able to share in your knowledge. All 3 of my children have developed differently, it is so true that no two are alike! Much appreciated.

  2. This is clear, and easy for parents to read! I’ll be sharing your link on my website.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Do you have suggestions for early talkers? My grandaughter turned 14 months today and currently she has 40-50 words including several 2-3 word sentences. She also understands almost everything said to her and acts on simple directions (put it back, go get the ball, etc). What should we be doing to encourage her speech and language development?

    • Kathleen, just keep it up! Let her PLAY PLAY PLAY, explore her world, and give her new and fun experiences!

      • Hi Katie and Kathleen! From a fellow Katie/Kathleen :) As a librarian, we really encourage adults to read a wide variety of books, sing songs, and recite nursery rhymes and poems. Singing is a wonderful way to slow down natural speech and break down syllables in a helpful way for kids, and many songs and nursery rhymes have rich vocabulary that we don’t typically use in everyday language. I tell my storytime grown-ups that if they commit to reading, writing, singing, talking and playing with their child, they will be enriching their child’s life and helping them get ready for school.

        This site has been so interesting for me to check out, as it offers a much more in depth look at aspects of development that we don’t always focus on in the library. It’s easy to focus on the other early literacy skills and ignore the importance of encouraging parents to talk with their child and really take conversational turns. Thanks! :)

    • Kathleen! I’m the same as you. My son is exceptional with language skills. He recognizes letter, can recall them, points to when asked or when he sees a letter and can tell you what letter it is, and he says the entire alphabet (capital and lower case). There are a few words he actually can read. All of the bilabials above, he can say, including ch, z, and ng among others. He’s been doing this since 15 months old when I first introduced the alphabet to him. We started writing down all the words (and 2+ word sentences) he can say and all the words he knows but doesn’t say. We lost count somewhere around 400.

      The key is to read EVERY DAY, even multiple times a day, to you child from the moment they are born. We currently read about 20 books (sometimes begrudgingly after the 5th book) a day with him. I can’t stress enough how important it is to read with your child and interact with the illustrations in the book.

  4. What about trilingual children? When do they start talking?

  5. Thank You for your clear and thorough delivery of our Speech & Language Milestones, you are a fabulous resource for parents!

  6. This, as always with your content, is amazingly useful! I will be sending concerned parents here in the future for sure.

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