Communication Development in Early Childhood
Amanda Gagnon

Basics of Communication Development in Early Childhood

Communication Development in Early Childhood
Amanda Gagnon

Basics of Communication Development in Early Childhood

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Monitoring your child’s language and communication development may feel stressful as a parent, especially when comparing your child to others. Communication is an umbrella term involving different areas of speech and language. Before covering atypical communication development, it is important to understand what each area entails.


What are Speech and Language?

Speech and language are two separate domains. The terms “articulation” and “phonology” are commonly used when describing speech development. Articulation refers to how we make speech sounds using the mouth, jaw, lips, and tongue. Phonology refers to predictable, rule-based errors that affect more than one sound. Voicing (the production of sound using the vocal folds and breath) and fluency (the rate and rhythm of speech) also fall within the speech domain.

Language refers to the words that we use and the ways in which we use them. Receptive language involves comprehension (i.e., understanding while listening or reading). Expressive language refers to language output (i.e., expression while speaking, gesturing, signing, or writing) to share ideas and obtain information.

Pragmatic language is the use of language in social contexts, such as to greet, request, inform, or protest. It involves following implied rules of conversation, such as taking turns and staying on topic. Social rules of conversation vary between cultures and individuals.


Communication Development Milestones

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) outlines communication development milestones between the ages of birth and five years. Although children develop at their own rates, the following table provides a general overview of typical communication development. Skills are usually developed by the end of each age range.


First-Year Communication Development Milestones

Age Range Hearing/Comprehension Speech/Expression
Birth-3 months
  • Startles at loud sounds.
  • Quiets or smiles when you talk.
  • Seems to recognize your voice. Quiets if crying.
  • Makes cooing sounds.
  • Cries change for different needs.
  • Smiles at people.
4-6 months
  • Moves their eyes in the direction of sounds.
  • Responds to changes in your tone of voice.
  • Notices toys that make sounds.
  • Pays attention to music.
  • Coos and babbles when playing.
  • Makes speech-like babbling sounds.
  • Giggles and laughs.
  • Makes sounds when happy or upset.
7-12 months
  • Turns and looks in the direction of sounds.
  • Looks when you point.
  • Turns when you call their name.
  • Understands words for common items and people.
  • Starts to respond to simple words and phrases.
  • Plays games with you, like peek-a-boo.
  • Listens to songs and stories for a short time.
  • Babbles long strings of sounds.
  • Uses sounds and gestures to seek attention.
  • Points to objects and shows them to others.
  • Uses gestures like waving bye and reaching for “up.”
  • Imitates different speech sounds.
  • Says 1 or 2 words (sounds may not be clear).


Second-Year Communication Development Milestones

Age Range Hearing/Comprehension Speech/Expression
1-2 years
  • Points to a few body parts when you ask.
  • Follows 1-part directions.
  • Responds to simple questions, like “Who’s that?” or “Where’s your shoe?”
  • Listens to simple stories, songs, and rhymes.
  • Points to pictures in a book when you name them.
  • Uses a lot of new words.
  • Uses pbmh, and w in words.
  • Starts to name pictures in books.
  • Asks questions, like “What’s that?”, “Who’s that?”, and “Where’s kitty?”
  • Puts 2 simple words together.


Third-Year Communication Development Milestones

Age Range Hearing/Comprehension Speech/Expression
2-3 years
  • Understands opposites, like go–stop, big–little, and up–down.
  • Follows simple 2-part directions.
  • Understands new words quickly.
  • Has a word for almost everything.
  • Talks about things that are not in the room.
  • Uses k, g, f, t, d, and n in words.
  • Uses prepositions like inon, and under.
  • Uses two or three words to talk about and ask for things.
  • Familiar people can understand your child.
  • Asks “Why?”
  • Puts 3 words together to talk about things. May repeat some words and sounds.


Fourth-Year Communication Development Milestones

Age Range Hearing/Comprehension Speech/Expression
3-4 years
  • Responds when you call from another room.
  • Understands words for some colors.
  • Understands words for some shapes.
  • Understands words for family members.
  • Answers simple who, what, and where questions.
  • Uses some pronouns.
  • Uses some plural words.
  • Most people understand what your child says.
  • Asks when and how questions.
  • Puts 4 words together.
  • Talks about what happened during the day.
  • Uses about 4 sentences at a time.


Pre-K Communication Development Milestones

Age Range Hearing/Comprehension Speech/Expression
4-5 years
  • Understands words for order, like firstnext, and last.
  • Understands words for time, like yesterdaytoday, and tomorrow.
  • Follows longer directions.
  • Follows classroom directions.
  • Hears and understands most of what they hear at home and in school.
  • Says all speech sounds in words. May make mistakes on later sounds, like lsrvzchsh, and th.
  • Responds to “What did you say?”
  • Talks without repeating sounds or words most of the time.
  • Names some letters and numbers.
  • Uses sentences that have more than 1 action word.
  • Tells a short story.
  • Keeps a conversation going.
  • Talks in different ways, depending on the listener and place.


Encouraging Communication Development at Home

There are many ways to facilitate communication development at home. Speech and language are involved in almost everything we do, so no special materials are required to practice. Remember to always speak to your child in the language that you are most comfortable using.

In the earliest years, the following strategies are helpful for encouraging communication. Respond to your child when they make noise and imitate the sounds that they make. Talk about what you are doing throughout the day. Practice gestures, such as peek-a-boo, clapping, blowing kisses, and waving.

As children start to understand and express themselves, use short, simple words and sentences with correct grammar for your child to imitate. Practice making different sounds, such as “p-p-p,” when popping bubbles. Read books aloud and encourage your child to look at the pictures. As children get older, they can begin to point to pictures that you name and label objects that they see. If labeling is difficult for your child, label the pictures for them.


Make it a Positive Experience

Communication should be a positive experience, so telling your child what they say is important. Ask them to repeat things that you don’t fully understand. For example, if your child appears to want a specific toy, you can say, “I know you want a block. Tell me which block you want.” Use new words with similar meanings to expand your child’s vocabulary. Talk about colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. Begin to ask your child simple questions that do not have a “yes” or “no” answer. For example, instead of asking, “Do you want an apple?” You can ask, “Do you want an apple or an orange?” Acknowledge your child’s responses to questions. Singing songs, playing finger games such as “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” and telling nursery rhymes also build communication.


Preschool Years

During the preschool years, you can focus on later-developing language skills. Categorization is an easy task to embed within daily routines. Sort items in your home into different groups, like food, toys, and clothes. Talk about why items are the same and different, or ask your child to find items that do not belong. Talk about where items are in space using prepositions like “under,” “next to,” “between,” and “behind.” Play a guessing game in which you give clues about items and have your child guess what you’re describing. Describe something you see, like, “I spy something round on the wall that you use to tell the time,” and have your child guess what it is. Let your child describe something they see.

Define new words for your child to understand. For example, you can say, “A vehicle is something that brings people from place to place. Cars, buses, planes, and trains are all vehicles. They are types of transportation.” Give your child two-step directions, like “Get your shoes from the closet and put them on,” and have your child give you directions to follow, too!


Role-Playing Games

Role-playing games are another great tool to improve communication. Act out daily activities, such as cooking dinner or visiting the doctor. This will help your child understand how others talk and act. Your child can participate in planning daily activities, such as grocery shopping or play dates. Play cause-and-effect or board games with your child to work on following directions, taking turns, and coping with feelings. Reading books with simple stories and pictures is beneficial at all stages of development. Talk about what happened, retell the story, or act it out with props. Tell them your favorite part of the story and ask about their favorite part.


Seeking Assessment and Treatment

If you notice that your child is not communicating effectively for their age, scheduling an appointment with their pediatrician may be helpful. Even if a doctor suggests to “wait and see,” you can take action to seek an evaluation from an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist (SLP), early intervention provider, or services like Vitalxchange.


Early Intervention

Early intervention (EI) is available for families and children ages birth to 3 in every state under federal law. EI involves professionals who help children develop cognitive, communication, physical, sensory, social-emotional, and adaptive/self-help skills. An evaluation can be completed to see if a child is eligible for services that are individualized to their specific needs. If your child is eligible for services, they will receive an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which includes goals, services, and other supports for your child and family.


State and Local Resources

If you are concerned about your child’s communication development, contact your local or state early intervention program directly to request an evaluation. Although you do not have to wait for a referral from a doctor or other professional, you can also seek a referral from your child’s pediatrician, teacher, childcare provider, or other healthcare provider. Resources are available through your state department of health or education. While some early intervention services are free, you may be charged on a sliding scale, through insurance, or through Medicaid, for services with a cost. You cannot be denied services if you can’t afford to pay for them.


School-Based Services

When your child is about to turn 3, your early intervention team will develop a transition plan to meet your child’s needs. For some children, services may no longer be necessary. For others, they may receive a school-based evaluation. If your child is already three or has not received early intervention services, you can still seek an evaluation from your local school district. Children who are found eligible for school-based services will receive special education and related services to help them function in the educational setting, free of charge. You can also seek outpatient or private therapy services, which are usually billed to you or your insurance.


Final Thoughts

The experts at Vitalxchange will support you as you navigate your child’s communication development. If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language, the benefits of seeking an evaluation in the early years are abundant. If you have specific questions or seek recommendations tailored to your child, Vitalxchange is here to help.



American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

ASHA ProFind


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