Inside: What is normal speech development for 0 to 4 years old, how you can encourage your child to begin speaking and simple speech development activities you can do to support your child.
0 to 3 years is known as the most intensive period of acquiring speech and language skills. Like many parents, you may find yourself at a point around 2 to 3 years where you begin wondering what is normal for your child’s speech:
- Are they saying enough words?
- What can you do to help them begin speaking clearly?
- Or maybe they are developing a number of languages at once, or maybe you worry that they don’t speak clearly enough for others to understand. These can be very real anxieties for parents with children entering childcare - will their caregivers understand them? Will they be able to make their needs known?
Read on for some reassurance that where your child is with their speech is most likely normal, and of course, some fun and simple speech development activities you can do to support them further.
How does a child’s ability to speak actually develop?
Did you know that speech development, in terms of the sounds a child can clearly make, is all to do with their oral muscle development? Of course overall language development is more complex than this, involving the brain and body’s ability to hear, process, understand and produce language, but it is important to note that speaking itself is a multi-step process in which the child’s lips, tongue, jaw, cheeks and soft palate have to coordinate to make the right shapes at the right time in order to form a word.
It’s true that we think of it being normal for children’s motor development (their ability to walk, run, jump, use scissors, do up buttons) to take longer for some than others, right? In a similar way, it’s not hard to recognise that children may develop their speech muscles at different speeds.
Developmental guidelines suggest that a child should be able to speak clearly, using long sentences with lots of detail and mostly accurate grammar by 4 to 5 years. So what can you expect of your child’s speech at different stages?
What are the expected Speech Development milestones?
Under 1 year
- Babies under 6 months begin making noise when talked to and vocalising their wants and needs through cries and laughter
- From 6 to 7 months babies begin babbling using short and long sounds, communicating using gestures and trying to imitate sounds you make
- By 1 year, they may be saying one or two words (such as ‘mama’, ‘dada’, ‘dog’ or ‘bus’)
Related: Have a baby at home? Read this article to understand early literacy development in babies and four simple activities to set your babies up for literacy success.
1 to 2 years old
- Between 1 to 2 years most children will show increasing understanding of questions and commands, and begin putting two words together (such as ‘want milk’ or ‘pick up’)
- They might attempt to repeat simple words and enjoy learning and making animal sounds
2 to 3 years old
- Between 2 to 3 years most child will develop a word for almost everything
- They will use mostly 2 to 3 word phrases
- Towards 3 years, their speech may be becoming more accurate but they may often leave off ending sounds of words and pronunciation may be unclear
- By 3, they may begin using the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘I’ correctly, asking questions using an inflection, and knowing when to use plurals and some past tense verbs
They may have developed the ability to produce k, g, f, t, d and n sounds
3 to 4 years old
- Between 3 to 4 years, children will begin answering simple who, what, when, where, why questions, talking about activities, using sentences with four or more words, and speaks easily without having to repeat syllables or words
- They might be able to communicate more easily with strangers and use mostly correct grammar
They may be able to say most sounds correctly except for a few (l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh and th)
Bilingual Speech Development in Children
If you are a parent of a child who is bilingual, you may wonder if these milestones will be different. There is no research to suggest that bilingual children have more delays or difficulties with language. Your young child’s brain is incredibly capable!
Bilingual children may appear to develop differently simply because there is more background processing going on. This might look like: saying their first word a little later than others and appearing to have a smaller vocabulary because they might have 50 words in each of their languages, where a monolingual child may know 90-100 in their one language.
Your child may also begin ‘code switching’ where they borrow a word from one language when they don’t have a word for it in the language they are communicating in. This is both very normal and an example of your child’s resourcefulness in learning to communicate.
When knowing what to expect from your bilingual child, you can generally follow the same expected milestones (for each language). You may find that their pronunciation in their separate languages takes more practice depending on how different the language sounds are (i.e. Chinese and English have very different sounds so their speech muscles have to learn to produce a much wider range of sounds) or they appear to have an accent in the language which is less dominant. This is also normal.
5 Speech Development Activities You Can do at Home
Our Oral Motor muscles are the same ones we need for eating and drinking. Try these speech development activities if you have a young toddler who drools a lot or is still learning to self-feed using a fork or spoon.
If you have a child who is just beginning to make and put together more sounds, or a preschooler who often speaks unclearly (they know the words and the sentence they want to say, but the sounds come out slurred or unclear) these exercises could help with their Oral Motor Development.
TIP: As with developing any sort of muscle, regular practise will produce the best results. Why not put together a ‘speech practice basket’ with a small mirror, a straw, a bubble wand and the ‘Ah’ and ‘mm’ cards from these activities so that you can use them every day at a set time, or place them on your child’s shelf for them to choose when have a go.
Speech Development Activity 1: Wiggle your tongue
Invite your child to copy your movements with their tongue as you stick out yours and move it up, down, and side to side. Play ‘Simon Says’ (or mummy says) giving instructions like ‘tongue up! tongue down! tongue side to side!’ and see if they can copy you.
Can they press their tongue against the top of their mouth? Try doing this and counting to 10 before letting go.
These exercises target the tongue muscle which is used in producing and blending almost all speech sounds.
Speech Development Activity 2: Silly fish faces
Using a small mirror, have fun making funny faces together.
- sucking in your cheeks to make a fish face and pretending to swim like a fish
- making an ‘O’ shape with your lips and opening and closing them to sound like a fish making bubbles under water
- giving kisses, and making a squeaky kissing noise
These exercises target the lips which are important in making many different consonant sounds, and moving from one lip shape to another is an important part of pronouncing words.
Speech Development Activity 3: Straw transfer game
Invite your child to hold a straw and suck to make a piece of paper or a large pompom stick to the end of it. (Make sure the item is larger than the end of the straw so that it doesn’t get sucked up!).
Give them two bowls, one full of paper or pompoms and one empty, the game is to use suction to transfer the items from one bowl to the other.
Speech Development Activity 4: Pompom/paper race
With the same equipment as above, invite your child to use their straw to blow a pompom across the table. How far can you make it go!
Similar to making fish faces, Activities 3 & 4 primarily work the cheek muscles. Our cheeks play an important part in forming the shape of our lips, the positioning of our tongue and soft palate and in pushing air out of our mouths to make different sounds
Speech Development Activity 5: Sing like a frog!
Taking two pieces of card, write ‘Ah’ on one and ‘Mm’ on the other. You can tape a popsicle stick to each to make a little sign or simply point to each card as you play.
Practising these speech sounds strengthens the vocal cords and the movement from a closed mouth shape to an open mouth shape.
Tip: for toddlers who may be less interested in letters at their age, you may like to draw a circle on one, and a line on the other - representing the shape of our mouths when we make the two sounds.
For preschoolers: If you would like to extend this activity, make two more cards, one with ‘Sh’ and one with La‘. When you hold up or point to these two the game is to sing as loud as you can, (‘lalalalala’) and then put your finger to your lips to ‘shhhh’, be quiet…
FAQs about Child Speech Development
Some children take a little bit longer to venture into using a wider range of consonants. This is because many consonant sounds are harder to make (more complex shapes, needing more muscle strength, and taking more effort) so you may find for a time your child reverts to using easier sounds like ‘b’ and ‘d’ to replace other harder consonants. Doing this does not necessarily mean they have a developmental problem or delay, they may just need more time and more practice. See ‘What are expected Speech Development milestones?’ above to note what sounds might be hard at different stages and give the activities in this post a go!
Give them space. They may just need some more positive affirmation or a break. It is ok not to correct them too often and rely on their exposure to your correct grammar and speech instead, think of them like a little listening sponge.
As with reading, speech skills develop best with lots of exposure, this means being around rich use of language. Here are some tips for encouraging your child to begin speaking:
- When playing together, pay attention to what they are interested in and talk lots about them.
- Use picture books to point to things and talk about them. Check out our list of favourite books for toddlers.
- Use lots of actions and different voices when singing, playing or reading.
- Find more tips in our Early Literacy for Babies article.
If you are at all concerned with your child’s speech development, contact your family doctor. The first steps to diagnosing potential problems may be checking their hearing and assessing basic development. Your doctor or health service can redirect you to help from a Speech Therapist or other professional if needed. The information in this blog post is not intended to replace these services.
Give these fun Speech Development Activities a go with your child!
The most important part of this crucial period for speech development is lots of exposure to different people speaking in their normal way at their normal speed, lots of positive encouragement to try out words, imitate and practise different sounds, and lots of patience as these all important speech muscles (Oral Motor muscles) develop.
Give these fun speech development activities a go and see if they make a difference for your child!Check out these blog posts for tips and activities to teach your child the alphabet and letter sounds and learn letter formation.