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Putting the pieces together: the construction of language

Previous blogs have looked at how and when children develop the different sounds they need for speech. These sounds are vital skills for them to understand and make words. This blog focuses on the stages of language development that children go through when learning to speak, a journey that takes them through into school and beyond. It will look at the building blocks that children need to have in place on the way.

As with all areas of development we have milestones for language development. We expect that children usually say their first words at about 1 year old.

Some children say their first words at 11 months, others at 13 or 14 months but it is generally in this window. It may not sound the same as we would say it as adults but if a child consistently matches a string of sounds to a person or object this counts as a word. So if they say 'mama' for mum or mummy, 'du' for juice or drink this is a word.

Once children have developed the power of a word they go on to copy and  say a whole range of others – usually the names of people they are close to first, as well as a word like ‘bye bye’ (we have been waving and saying this with them for a long time).

They will begin to use words to name things that they can see, which helps them to ask for things and name other objects. As their language develops they should be able to use a range of nouns (to name objects) and verbs (to describe actions).

When they’ve learned about 50 plus words they start putting 2 words together and combining them into phases like ‘more juice’ or ‘mummy shoes’. This opens up their world as they can ask for things and make comments. This usually happens when they are around 2 years old.

The next step is to start talking in sentences, which happens by the time they are about 3 years old. When this happens their language just takes off. They can tell you stories and talk about things that happened in the past - what they did on the weekend, for example. They can use their imagination and tell you what’s in their minds and are able to understand a wider range of questions like 'What's this? ''who's in the picture?' and 'where are we going?'.

You can find out more about the stages of children’s communication development by going to Talkingpoint.org.uk. There is also a Progress Checker on the website - this can be useful if you are concerned about a child's language development.

Key things to remember

  • We expect children to go through the same stages of development. They might do this at slightly different rates but there is usually a pattern: 1 word then 2 words then 3 word sentences.
  • There are other skills children need to develop that help them learn to communicate. Below is a map of these building blocks. Children need to have the building blocks at the bottom in place to help their language skills to move on. Having a firm foundation in these bottom building blocks helps them to learn more complex skills as they grow and learn.
  • Understanding always develops before talking and babies develop situational understanding through everyday routines and activities. For example, they know that when you get the pram or buggy it's time to go out; they don't have to understand words to know this as they can pick up clues from what's happening around them. They can show you when they can understand words without using language e.g. if you are looking at a book together with pictures of different animals  and you say 'show me the dog' and they point to the dog they are showing you that they understand the word 'dog'.
  • The foundation skills of attention and listening will set them up for a lifetime of being able to concentrate and focus, as well as set them on the path to talking and reading.
  • Children will usually have had a newborn screen to check their hearing. If you’re worried about their hearing discuss with the child's parents.

Building blocks of language (Source: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde)

How can I help? Reflecting on practice

There’s an old saying straight from an 80s pop song: ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it....and that’s what gets results’. Helping children to learn to talk is a matter of what we do as adults to give them a helping hand (research has found that parents are the key element in helping to develop children’s communication skills). Here are a few of our top tips:

  • Follow their interests when you’re out and about or during play. By tuning in to what children are  looking at you show you’re listening to them.
  • Give them the words  – by talking about what you’re seeing, you’re adding the language in  context. You know that the child is focusing on the object so by saying the word for it you’re helping them to build up their store of words (verbal understanding in the chart above). So for example you can say ‘cat’ or ‘car’ or ‘squirrel’ when they point to those objects and you’re building on their understanding of words and letting them know what the word is for everything that they see.
  • Add a word: when children are getting to the two word stage you can add a word on to what they’re already saying. So if they say ‘juice’ you can say ‘more juice’. You are modelling the language for them and helping them to get to the next stage.
  • Sing songs, tell stories and read stories as this will help children develop their listening skills and their understanding of how rhythm, rhyme and stories work. To be storytellers, we have to hear stories and know how they work.
  • Give them something to talk about – going to different places, even if it’s just your local park gives them a chance to see the world around them, to listen and to learn.
  • Don't worry if they're not saying words clearly to start with: you can say the word back to them in the right way. That way you're showing you're listening, praising them for having a go and modelling the way they can say the word in the future.
  • You don’t need to have a specific ‘language’ session – use every day activities like mealtimes to help children learn language. 

What helps children to develop their skills is giving them their communication 5-a-day. Today did you:

  • Play together
  • Talk together
  • Sing together
  • Tells stories together
  • Laugh together

For suggested activities, check out I CAN’s Early Talkers box set

Any parent or professional  with a question or concern about their child's communication can contact the I CAN Help Enquiry Service for a call or email from a speech and language therapist.

Learning to talk is one of the most complex foundation skills that children learn. Many children do this easily and put the building blocks together. Other children may struggle with any of these areas of communication but you are key to supporting early language development and identifying any needs they may have. 

Check out our free training for members that looks at supporting children with speech, language and communication needs.

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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