How to help your child find their voice

Published on Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Last updated on Thursday, 09 July 2020

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Learning to talk is one of the great developmental milestones. As children move from first words to full sentences, they hone their ability to describe things, answer questions, make requests, exert their independence and generally communicate with the world.

When can you expect your child to start speaking? How can you help them master this important skill? And what should you do if they're struggling to be understood?

To answer these questions, we spoke with Christie Drabsch, a speech pathologist at Noosa District Speech Pathology. Here she provides valuable information about what to expect, and when to seek professional help.

Generally speaking, when should children first start talking, and what will they be saying at different ages?

When it comes to communication milestones, parents can expect:

  • Babies to start using words at about 12 months of age
  • Toddlers to be using more than 50 words and some two-word phrases by their second birthday
  • Children to be understood at least 80 per cent of the time, by people who don't know them, by their third birthday
  • Children to be able to make themselves understood almost all the time by their fifth birthday. At this age, they should also start to recognise that spoken sounds can be matched to written letters, hear and make rhyming words, and hear and count syllables/beats in words. Five-year-old children can also break up the sounds in a small word, e.g. "C-A-T."

You can also find more information in Speech Pathology Australia's Communication Milestones Kit, which contains fact sheets for ages one to five and is a great way to see what your child may be saying and when.

How can parents and early childhood educators help youngsters develop their talking skills?

The easiest way to help children develop their speech and language skills is to speak in sentences that are one to two words above where the child is speaking spontaneously. If a baby isn't speaking yet, model lots of beautiful one to two word phrases, e.g. 'Baby drink', and if a toddler is using two-word phrases, then model lots of three to four word phrases.

What are some signs that point towards a child needing speech pathology treatment?

If your child hasn't reached any of the milestones listed above, it would be a good idea to get an assessment from a speech pathologist. You will leave the assessment with a clear idea of your child’s communication skills and whether the errors they are making are appropriate for their age.

It's also recommended that you seek a speech pathology assessment if:

  • Your toddler uses gestures and grunts instead of words
  • You are in any way concerned about your child's speech
  • Your Kindy or school-aged child has difficulty attending, following directions or learning from the classroom environment
  • Your child is having difficulty learning to read and spell
  • You notice your child stuttering
  • Your child has a hoarse voice in the absence of a cold

The best advice that I can give, is please don't wait and see. Often a little bit of work when a child is younger can save a lot more work down the line.

What are some common techniques used by speech pathologists to help children?

There are so many techniques used by speech pathologists. Most of the time, when a child is difficult to understand, they can make the correct sound, but don't, because they are still simplifying words and saying words the way a younger child would say them. When this happens, just getting the child to say the word correctly is not enough – speech pathology intervention is needed to re-train the child’s sound system in a very specific way.

When a toddler is late to begin talking, we will start by having as many people in the child's life as possible, simplify their language so they are only using one to two word phrases when speaking to the toddler. Speech pathologists will then provide the family with additional strategies based on the child's progress and communication environment.

Language, learning and literacy intervention varies based on a comprehensive assessment of the child's communication strengths and weaknesses, but will often include work on vocabulary, sentence structure, sound awareness and teaching letter-sound relationships.

How can parents and early childhood educators help children get the most out of their speech pathology treatment?

At Noosa Speech, we provide families with activities so the child can revise their new skills throughout the week. Families who are able to follow up with those activities often see the most progress.

Approximately how much does speech pathology cost in Australia and is there a general guide about the number of sessions required?

Public speech pathology services are generally free, though there may sometimes be a co-payment from the service and client. Private speech pathologists can determine their own fee schedule.

At Noosa District Speech Pathology, our standard sessions are $80 and include a half hour session and follow up activities. The number of sessions is very much dependant on the nature of the child’s communication difficulties. However, most of our clients would see us for between three months and two years.

Some rebates are available through private health care funds and Medicare and some children are also eligible for funding under packages such as Helping Children with Autism, Better Start and the NDIS.

What is the effect of a speech impairment in young children if it goes untreated?

Children with early speech and language delays are at risk of difficulty learning to read and spell and/or learn from the classroom environment in the future. The good news is that regular, one-on-one speech pathology intervention at a young age can help to decrease or eliminate this risk.

Speech Pathology Week is celebrated from 19 to 25 August, 2018. To see what the Week is all about and pick up communication tips, click here.

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