The term “late talkers” describes children who have a limited spoken vocabulary at around 2 years of age. Keep in mind that first words appear close to 12 months, and children begin combining words prior to 2 years (refer to my blog on Communication Milestones).
If at 18-20 months your child uses less than 10 words, or if at 21-30 months they have fewer than 50 words and aren’t combining words, despite otherwise typical development, then you have a “late talker”.
Because early language development provides a foundation for the development of later language and literacy skills, late talkers are at risk for problems with language and literacy skills in elementary school and beyond.
One of the first things I do when evaluating a child with reportedly limited speech is to observe the parent and child playing together. More often than not these parents “over-talk” during play.
I attribute this “over-talking” to two phenomenons. First, most of us are to some degree uncomfortable with silence, so we organically fill the silent spaces. Second, many parents have the misconception they need to model more words and talk more for their children who are behind in speech output.
Talking more is NOT helpful to Late Talkers because:
- Talking more results in longer phrases. Consider matching the length of your utterance to your child’s level or just above your child’s level. So, if your child is using single words, model single words or 2-word combinations.
- Talking more results in less turns for your child. Consider taking short turns saying one thing, then pause, allowing your child an opportunity to take a turn, whether that be verbal, non-verbal or just a sound. Looking expectantly at your child and staying quiet sends the message it is her turn.
- Talking more results in no words being highlighted. Consider using fewer words, preferably “early vocabulary” words, such as nouns and specific words that would be useful for your child to communicate. Using too many words makes it more difficult for words to stand out and get noticed. It is the equivalent of using a highlighter to mark every word on a page. Think about which words you wish tohighlight.
- Talking more results in less connection. Consider what your child can pay attention to. If there is too much talking he will likely tune you out. If he has tuned you out then you have lost the opportunity to connect. Without shared attention, your child will not observe how you made the word and the words will have no meaningful connection.
Ways to SUPPORT your Late Talker:
- Get on her level physically. Sit on the floor and get eye-to-eye.
- Observe what he is interested in and comment on that. Offering words that connect to what he is paying attention to makes them meaningful. And he will be more motivated to attempt saying words related to his own interests.
- Match her language level. Match the length of your utterance to her level or just above her level. As I suggested above, if she is using single words, model single words or two-word combinations.
- Pause after you take a turn and look at him expectantly. Wait. Wait some more. Waiting is harder than you think!
- Listen for her sounds and words. Acknowledge them by repeating and adding one more sound or word. “Dog…. hungry dog”
- Resist the urge to request him to repeat you. Children learn best through natural interactions, not repetition.
Be patient, take note of small changes and celebrate progress. Progress can appear in many different ways… more eye contact, more joint play, more attempts, more relevant gestures, more copying, more sounds, more words. Be open to progress in its many forms.
And as always, if you suspect that your child’s speech and language skills are behind (check my blog Communication Milestones), I highly recommend consulting with a certified Speech-Language Therapist.