As with all learning for children, learning to talk happens at different rates for every child. Speech development and language starts at birth; our imitating of baby sounds and responding to their needs is just the beginning of their learning to communicate journey.
Communication is quite complex. It includes language, speaking, speech, hearing, listening, understanding, social skills, reading, writing, and using voice. A child that is slow to develop language and whose language is developing in a way that does not reflect normal sequential developmental patterns may have a language disorder.
As many as 20 percent of four-year-olds have a speech or language disorder. Language disorders are often known as the ‘invisible communication disorder’ because language difficulties aren’t always obvious. Speech difficulties, pronunciation or stuttering are often more obvious for adults to notice.
Many children have no known cause for their communication disorder. Other children may have communication difficulties as a result of a diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy or hearing loss.
Children with a speech or language disorder are six times more likely to have literacy problems than children without, in addition to affecting their well-being, self-esteem and social development. Long-term impacts include poor academic achievement, a risk to mental health, reduced employment options and social isolation.
But it’s not all bad news, there is help available.
Speech pathologists are university trained health professionals who can help. Most speech pathologists will do an assessment of the child, to begin with, so they can understand the child’s strengths and weaknesses. Once these are determined, a speech pathologist will plan treatment goals taking into consideration the family’s priorities.
Whether you are seeing a speech pathologist or just wanting to help your child with their pronunciation, here are some things that you can be doing to help them master the complicated world of language, but just remember always keep it fun:
‘Play is a child’s work’ – for a child, play is their job! Talk about what they are doing, and what you are doing. Using a variety of words is more helpful than using lots of words.
For example: Instead of saying, “Oh, the truck is wet because you watered everything, instead of watering the garden. Now it’s all wet and we have to clean up.’ Try saying instead, “The truck is wet! It’s saturated, it’s so wet! Look, it’s sopping wet!”
This is when a child makes a mistake, and we say it back to them correctly. For most children, once is enough. But to make it more powerful, try aiming for 10! When you hear a child make an error, you continue to talk about it (corrected), for as long as you can, with just a little emphasis on the word or sound.
For example: If your child says, “It’s berry yummy!” You can respond with, “Very yummy? It is very yummy. Very, very yummy. What else is very yummy?”
In this way, the child doesn’t feel like they’re being corrected, which gets annoying for all of us. We’re still talking about their interest, and we’re giving lots of modelling on how the child should have said it.
Bring out the books.
Books are well known to promote early speech, language, literacy and narrative development. Try changing up how you read the books. Turn the page, and wait for the child to start talking, or talk about what you can see happening in the pictures, rather than reading the words. Then link it to the child’s life. How is the bear in the book alike or different to their bear?
These are some of the common difficulties that are often experienced if your child has a language disorder:
- Difficulty following instructions at home and at school.
- Finds it hard to use language to express their ideas, thoughts and feelings.
- Has a limited vocabulary and has difficulty finding the right word to use.
- Uses sentences with poor structure, errors or with words in incorrect order.
- Sentences are short in length and complexity.
- Has problems retelling stories and finds it hard to tell information to others and often repeats phrases.
If you’re finding that you’re needing to translate for your four-year-old, or they’re struggling with peer interactions, or with following instructions, it’s worth getting them checked out by a Speech Pathologist. Medicare rebates may be available for some children, so check with your GP.