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Early Intervention: Speech vs Language Development

Children learn to understand language before they speak it proficiently. Language is different from Speech.

Language is made up of shared rules that include the understanding of what words mean and how to put words together (e.g., "I rode my bike to the park" rather than "Me ride bike park"). Language skills assist us in interpreting the verbal information we hear or read, (receptive language) and help us to select what word combinations are best in what situations, (expressive language).

Speech is the verbal means of communicating and refers to three areas of production; articulation, voice and fluency. Articulation is how speech sounds are made (e.g., children must learn how to produce the "l" sound in order to say "like" instead of "wike"). Voice is the use of the vocal folds and breathing to produce sound (e.g., the voice can be judged for its quality, pitch and intensity). Fluency refers to the rhythm of speech (e.g., repetitions, blocks or hesitations as when a person is stuttering).

When a child has a language disorder, he or she may have trouble understanding others (receptive language), or sharing thoughts, ideas, and expressing feelings completely (expressive language). When a child is unable to produce speech sounds correctly or fluently, or has problems with his or her voice, then he or she has a speech disorder.

The development of communication skills begins when the child is an infant. A delay in speech or language is likely to have a significant effect on the child's social and academic skills and behavior. Early identification of a speech or language problem is an important step in preventing later communication challenges. The earlier a child's problems are identified and treated, the less likely it is that problems will persist or get worse, or negatively impact the child’s success in reading, writing, schoolwork, and/or interpersonal relationships.

Below are some suggestions to help you stimulate your child’s speech and language development.

Speech Development

  • Imitate your child’s sounds including their sighs, gurgles and coos. Repeat words or intonational patterns that he or she produces.

  • Provide toys that make sounds similar to speech sounds or sounds your child can imitate. For example, “VVVV” for an airplane sound; “hhhh” for a dog panting; or “pppp” for a motor boat; or “sssss” for a snake sound. If your child is not talking yet, work on imitation of gestures and sounds first, as they are easier to imitate than words.

  • Bathtime is a great time for sound play because you are at eye level with your child.

  • Record your child’s voice and play it back.

  • Sing songs with repetitive lyrics. Learn finger plays and encourage your child to “sing” them with you. Ask your child to participate in the action for Itsy Bitsy Spider or Head Shoulder Knees and Toes.

Language Development

  • Talk to your child while taking walks. Have your child feel grass, tear leaves, dig in the sand, touch animals, and describe and label for them what they see and feel and hear.

  • Ask your child to point to pictures in books as you name them.

  • Read to your child every day and establish a routine for reading together. Turn off the television and radio. Listening is a skill that is strengthened the more children are read to, so try to increase the number of minutes you spend reading each day.

  • Look at family photos and describe what is happening in the pictures. Model simple clear sentences at first and then increase the complexity of your sentences as your child comprehends more.

  • Play games or create opportunities that require your child to follow directions. Begin with one and two step directions. Play Simon Says or ask your child to help you follow the steps in a recipe as you cook or bake. While playing with toys make simple requests, such as “Put the car in the garage”. If they place the car in the incorrect location, model exactly what they did do.

  • Sing songs to your child.

  • Tell your child the names of things he might not have labels for. For example, you might point out and tell him the word “counter”. Repeat the word over and over and when he says it, praise him.

  • Emphasize the meaning of words like top, bottom, long, short, empty, full, etc. Select a few words to teach at a time so as not to confuse him. Use many objects to demonstrate these concepts to help him generalize the concepts beyond one context.

To improve your child’s expressive language skills:

  • Show your child that you are interested in what he is saying by repeating back and expanding on what was said. For example, when your child says “my shoe”, respond with, “Here’s my new shoe”. “I wear shoes”.

  • To improve your child’s vocabulary skills, continue to read books daily. Ask your child to name the pictures on each page. Model simple sentences, such as, “ I see the boy running”. Take turns “reading “ a page. Ask questions about what you are reading. If your child really likes a book, read it over and over and ask them to tell you what happens next as you are reading.

  • Cut out pictures from old magazines and paste them on pages of a notebook. Organize the pictures by categories, to create pages of toys, food, animals, clothes, things at a park, furniture, etc. Talk about things that go with each object to develop word association skills. Add one object to each page that doesn’t belong and ask your child to tell you why.

  • Go to the library and find books with silly, absurd scenes and describe what is silly about each picture and tell why it is silly. Children love nonsense. You can also incorporate nonsense in play.

  • At meals, wait for your child to ask, rather than anticipating what he wants. Encourage requests and /or ask choice questions, to facilitate more language, rather than using close ended questions with “yes” and “no” answers.

  • Enrich your child’s daily life by visiting friends, going to the store, zoo or post office. Discuss with your child what will happen before you leave. Then comment on events taking place as they are happening, and when you return home, ask your child to sequence the events of the day. Repeat the same ideas often to help him learn the vocabulary associated with each outing.

  • Some children will produce better language when asked to “Tell me more”.

  • Use Parallel Talk with your child. Instead of talking about what you are doing, talk about what your child is doing, seeing, hearing and feeling. For example, you can say, “You’re driving your car. It is going fast. Oh no, it crashed!”

If you are concerned that your child may not be developing at the expected rate of their peers, you do not need to guess if they will catch up.

Have an evaluation by a speech language pathologist, who will administer tests of receptive and expressive language, and / or articulation, to determine how best to promote speech/ and language development. The earlier you receive help the better.

Early intervention can prevent problems with social skills , reading, writing and learning.

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