How to tell if your child has a speech, language or communication need?
Children develop speech, language and communication skills at different rates, some develop quickly, while others may take longer. You are the expert in your child. You know their likes and dislikes and motivations for communicating with others. This article explains what language milestones you should look out for and when to refer to a Speech and Language Therapist.
Some children’s language skills don’t develop at the same rate, or in the same way, as other children of the same age. You may notice that your child isn’t meeting the language developmental milestones for their age. This might be because they can’t say what they want to or they don’t understand the words that are being used.
Your child’s language skills might be developing as you would expect, however they have unclear speech or difficulty pronouncing certain speech sounds in words – this is known as a speech sound disorder. You can read about the different types of speech sound disorders here.
Take a look at our FREE speech skills inbox training programme – designed to help with unclear speech.
Your child may need support with other aspects of their communication:
- Looking and listening – children need to be able to learn to look at an adult and to listen in order to learn to communicate. They learn to listen to sounds around them including sounds that make up words. Children do not automatically know how to listen, it needs to be learned like any other skill.
- Social communication – using communication for social reasons for example knowing how to start, maintain and finish an interaction, being able to ask for help, turn taking in conversation and understanding and using non-verbal communication appropriately.
- Play – pretend play is particularly important as it when they start to recreate their own and others actions, for example putting food on plate and feeding teddy.
- Understanding of language – understanding is often over-estimated by parents and carers. This is because a child can follow an instruction using non-verbal understanding, for example by gestures and following cues from the situation. By 2 years, children are starting to be able to follow instructions containing two key words, for example ‘let’s give teddy an apple”.
Language development can be thought of as a wall – each brick supports the other bricks and strengthens the whole wall, just as each communication skill supports the development of other communication skills.
What language milestones should you look out for?
By 1 year old most babies will:
- Look for and be able to find where a sound is coming from
- Start to use gestures to communicate such as wave goodbye and point to request
- Babble and take turns talking with you
- Say at least 1 word
By 18 months most toddlers will:
- Play alone, although they will like to be near a familiar adult
- Engage in simple pretend play
- Follow 1 step instructions
- Babble and use at least 20 single words (although they may not be clear)
- Copy gestures and words from adults
By 2 years most toddlers will:
- Engage in pretend play, for example by feeding teddy
- Follow 2 step instructions
- Say around 50 words
- Start to use 2-word phrases, for example ‘daddy go’ and ‘all gone’
You can read more about the stages of speech and language development here .
We have a FREE inbox training programme for late talkers designed for use by parents at home.
Speech sound development
- By 18 months a child’s speech is normally 25% intelligible
- By 24 months a child’s speech is normally 50-75% intelligible
- By 36 months a child’s speech is normally 75-100% intelligible (Bowen, 2011)
(Intelligibility, in this instance, refers to the how much an unfamiliar listener can understand rather than a close family member)
Find out if your child’s speech errors are age appropriate here.
Learn more about our free Speech Sounds inbox programme.
When should I refer to Speech and Language Therapy?
The right time to seek advice about your child is when have any concerns about their communication development.
- If your baby doesn’t respond to sound or isn’t making any vocalisations
- By 12 months if your child is not yet attempting to communicate (this includes non-verbal communication i.e. pointing, simple gestures, looking at you then to an object then back to you) for different reasons, for example to request or make their needs known, to comment on an item of interest
- By 18 months if your child has difficulty following simple instructions and/or has difficulty imitating sounds
- By 2 years if your child is not yet engaging in pretend play, communicating with single words or following 1 step instructions
Top tips for doing your own research
There’s a lot of information out there, if you are searching for answers, make sure you keep the following things in mind…
- Always look for the author’s credentials, are they an expert in the field?
- Check the date of publication, is it current or will knowledge have moved on?
- Check if the research study has been peer reviewed – this means it has been evaluated by peers who have expertise in the subject area
- Use your common sense – beware of clickbait titles
- Ask for help – ask a Speech and Language Therapist about evidenced interventions
If you have any concerns about your child’s speech and language development speak to your Health Visitor or GP.
Written by Aine Barrett, Speech and Language Therapist
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Brain building happens when you and your little one are interacting with each other. A baby’s brain is wired to grow from birth and during your child’s earliest years, their brain makes 1 million neural connections every single second (NSPCC, 2019). Every time you read aloud to your child and respond positively to their babbles and gestures, those neural connections are being built and strengthened. So when we talk about the best 8 books we’re taking this into consideration.
3.5 words learnt every day
Between the ages of one and five, children learn (on average) approximately 3.5 words everyday (Dickinson et al. 2012). In order for this to happen, children need lots of exposure to language (especially those words they don’t hear in everyday life!) In a previous post ‘The best 2 books for developing language skills’ we talked about how to support your child’s language development using repetition. In this post, we review our favourite books for boosting your toddler’s vocabulary.
Have fun bringing the stories to life – use animated voices for the characters, make the sounds of the animals, giggle at the jokes or you could create your own ‘story sacks’. Abandon your agenda and let your child lead the story, you can read more about the Hanen approach here.
1.The Very Hungry Caterpillar By Eric Carle
The story follows the journey of a hungry caterpillar as he eats his way through a varied and very large quantity of food until he is full and builds himself a cocoon before emerging as a butterfly. The story is easy to follow for children of any age and it provides opportunity to work on different language skills. It is great for learning new vocabulary of food items, describing words, colours and numbers.
After you have read the book together a couple of times try using OWL (Observe, Wait, Listen) or leave a gap of 10 seconds for your child to try to fill in the missing word at the end of a sentence. For those children already using sentences, the book can be used to introduce the concept of sequences and talk about the lifecycle of a butterfly – the perfect book for late Spring and Summer to carry on the conversation when playing outside.
Take a look at the book
2. The Very Lazy Ladybird By Isobel Finn & Jack Tickle
This picture book tells the story of a ladybird so lazy that she doesn’t know how to fly so she catches a ride on each animal that passes by. This story is perfect for working on action words and describing words as well as the names and sounds for different animals. Once your child is familiar with the story you could copy some of the pictures from the book and take it in turns to describe what is happening.
For single word users, model 2 word phrases (i.e. ‘monkey swinging’) or for those already using short phrases introduce longer sentences (i.e. ‘the monkey is swinging in the tree’). You could turn this activity into a game using skittles (place the pictures under the skittles and take it in turns to roll the ball), fishing rods or a treasure hunt.
Take a look at the book
3. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? By Eric Carle
Children see a variety of animals, each one a different colour and a teacher looking at them. This book’s simple and repetitive language is ideal for working on expanding utterances and using 2 word phrases (i.e. ‘green frog’ or ‘I see’).
Once your child is familiar with the story you could place objects or pictures around your home to reinforce understanding of the subjective pronoun and encourage longer sentences (e.g. ‘I see a green frog’).
Check out the book
4. Dinosaur Farm By Frann Preston-Gannon
This story describes a day in the life of a farmer and his pet dino-dog on their dinosaur farm. The farmer has to work hard to take care of his dinosaurs and there is lots to do everyday. The illustrations are perfect for getting little ones involved with the story by encouraging them to describe what they see and what is happening as well as make predictions about what might happen (i.e. ‘Oh no, the farmer forgot to close the gate. What do you think is going to happen next?)
The BookTrust has a fantastic online resource with reading tips and book recommendations for children of all ages. You can search for books by theme so you can find a book your child will love whether they have a special interest in dinosaurs, fairies or penguins.
Check it out
5. Dinosaur Roar By Henrietta & Paul Stickland
This picture book teaches children about all the different types of dinosaurs and uses rhyming text to describe what they look like. This book is perfect for working on adjectives and opposites (i.e. ‘long vs short’ and ‘weak vs strong’).
Leave a gap at the end of the sentence to allow your little one to complete the sentence using a new describing word (i.e. ‘dinosaur spiky, dinosaur …’ The illustrations are ideal for starting conversations and talking introducing the concept of same and different so they can then begin to apply them to other things in their environment (e.g. ‘the tree is tall’).
Get the book
6. Bear on a Bike By Hannah Shaw
Rhyme and repetition is used to tell the story of Bear as he tries out different forms of transportation and has an adventure with each one. The illustrations provide plenty of opportunity for your child to initiate and lead conversations about the story and understand and use new vocabulary for transportation, animals and food.
It also allows for you to talk about sequences and the order of events in a story i.e. first bear is on the bike, then the bus etc.
Check it out.
7. The Tiger Who Came to Tea By Judith Kerr
A girl called Sophie is having tea with her mother in their kitchen when they are joined by a tiger who eats all the food in the house. After your child has become familiar with the story you could create your own afternoon tea or picnic with toy food and drink items from the story and practise re-telling the story.
When you are reading the story and looking at the pictures together you could ask questions about what is happening, guess what the tiger is thinking or make predictions about what the mother or father might say or do.
Take a look.
8. Wow! Said the Owl By Tim Hopgood
The story of a curious little owl who wants to see what the world looks like during the day. It is a great story for learning new vocabulary about weather, nature and colours. It is the perfect book for using as inspiration for arts and crafts activities – stick pictures of the owl into different backgrounds and talk about where the owl is and what they can see (e.g. ‘the owl is sitting in the tree/there is lots of clouds in the sky’).
See the book
Written by Aine Barrett, Speech and Language Therapist
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We will be taking to the road in March and April to deliver our top ten tips for late talkers at the National Day Nurseries Association event series. If your nursery is a member of NDNA and you live north of the Watford Gap – come and see us!
We will also be giving a sneak review of our new programme SparkleVR.
- 5 March, East Midlands, Leicester, Leicester Racecourse – book now
- 6 March, West Midlands, Wolverhampton, Molineux Stadium – book now
- 12 March, North West, Bolton, Bolton Whites Hotel – book now
- 13 March, Yorkshire and the Humber, Leeds, Holiday Inn Leeds Garforth – book now
- 4 April, North East, Newcastle, St James’ Park – book now
Even as adults, toy stores are alluring. Maybe the appeal comes from the flashing lights, the beaming colours and high stacked shelves. Often we are drawn in by the manufacture’s promises and guarantees to help our children develop in EVERY possible way.
There are the teethers that promise to promote language development*, the baby iPad that will teach your crawler to code and the toy pianos that promise to take you from waddler to Wolfgang.
Whether it’s the toy kitchen that says it will increase your child’s social communication through promoting role play, or the shape sorter that gives hopes of expanding your child’s vocabulary, a toy store, any toy store, comes with a million promises. Some more far-fetched than others.
In the UK, the toy industry is worth 3.4 billion. Toy manufactures know that we want the best for our children and they are cashing in on it!
But what does the research on toys say? And is there a connection between marketing and your child’s development?
Toys are fun, but toys are expensive. Do we really need the latest expensive gadgets and gizmos to give our children the very best start?
There is not much evidence to say that we do!
Child psychologist Alison Gopnik is adamant that relying on toys and iPads to give your child a developmental edge ‘fundamentally misunderstands what is happening in development’ and even if products did exist that fulfilled all the promises they made, ‘we would have defeated the whole point of childhood’
Gopnik goes on to assert that many of the toys that we see today are marketed using questionable claims rather than solid science. This is not to say that toys are not useful and that they don’t provide any value. But being wary of their claims and knowing that there are other things that are just as good, perhaps even better for your child’s development, might well be the place to start.
Drop the flashy and save some cashy! Lets get traditional with toys
It can be tempting to buy the noisiest, flashiest, talking toy on the market, but if we are going to buy a toy, what kind of toy is the best?
A 2016 study found that compared with electronic toys, traditional toys e.g. building blocks, puzzles, stacking games and tea sets, yielded higher language interactions. With the traditional toys, parents used more words and there were more conversational turns, more often!
More conversational turns are linked to better language gains (see our article one good turn deserves another). A recent study (2018) from MIT also points the importance of taking time to use your traditional toys. It found that children’s “language centres” in the brain were stronger in relation to the length of conversational turns that parents took. The children also did better on language tests.
Traditional toys therefore provide a platform on which to stage the back and forth conversations, but that communicative edge and language boost, can come from just you and the things you have lying about.
That is right! Traditional toys might be better than electronic ones, but YOU are the best!
Playing is one serious job and it is the first way that we interact with the world. (see article on the value of play)
Playing with your child, games like peek a boo, pointing to body parts and naming them, talking about what you are doing around the house and making it in to a fun game, are excellent ways to provide the language for your child to soak up.
Using everyday objects, pots pans, spoons and spatulas! Your tiny tot can have lots of fun banging, role playing, and listening to language, not through a battery operated talking machine but through listening to your voice and the everyday language that they will then go on to understand and use.
The adage is true, children are happiest with a cardboard box. Get ‘stacking’, ‘cutting’, ‘tearing’, ‘colouring’, ‘building’, ‘knocking’ and ‘hiding!’ Playing with such objects helps children (and you) to get creative, use their imaginations, motor skills and learn lots of words!
This is not to say that you shouldn’t buy toys! But know, you are your child’s first and best one. Nothing out there on the shelves of a toy store can replace what you can teach your child through playing with them. So, when you do go to buy that expensive, shiny, noisy toy, choose one that you like! As when your child eventually favours the cardboard box, you will have something to enjoy too! 😉
To find out more about how YOU can boost your child’s language – take a look at our SPARKLE programme
Written by Carolyn Fox, Children’s Speech and Language Therapist
Our Speech and Language Therapists regularly provide you with information, inside knowledge and tips and tricks on how to support your child’s communication skills. Here we are passing the mic over to another professional, Madeleine. Madeleine has worked with speech and language therapists for over ten years as a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator). SENCOs work within the school setting and it is their job to make sure that the children who have extra support needs, get those needs met. Like Speech and Language Therapists, SENCOs work with a range of other professionals, including psychologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and of course, teachers.
It is a demanding, fast paced and very busy job! So, we thank Madeleine for taking the time to talk to us. Madeleine has worked in the UK and Australia. In 2016, she won an award for being one of the best in her field.
Here she explains to us how Speech and Language Therapists work within her team at school and what communication means to her.
What is your job?
I am a SENCO in a school and I am also a dyslexia specialist.
What does speech language and communication mean to you?
Speech and Language Therapists are an outside agency that I can turn to, to ask for help with children’s speech articulation and their language development. I can use speech and language therapists to assess a child, understand their needs and to provide treatment programs to move children forward.
I would say that prior to being a SENCO I wasn’t aware of how much speech and language therapists had to do with language. I thought it was more to do with speech articulation. They work with a wide range of communication needs and are an integral part of the team.
How do speech and language therapists help children in schools / your school?
They help by assessing the children, so we can understand their needs fully and then everything that that encompasses, e.g., speaking to parents and teachers so we are all aware of strategies that we can use to support the child. They help by providing a treatment plan and working with the classroom teacher and assistants. They also provide whole school inset trainings. They leave lots of good communication resources in the school and point us and parents in the direction of great online support and resources e.g. The Communication Trust and Talking Point sites. They help us to manage referrals that come through and provide us with strategies that support the child without having to make a referral. So, as well as working with children and supporting staff within the school, they are supporting us in identifying the right children to refer in the first place.
What is advice as a SENCO have you received from a Speech and Language Therapist that you have found particularly useful?
Short bursts of regular intervention are better than sitting for hours with a child working on something.
The therapists I have worked with over the years have also emphasised using gesture with children, modelling back the correct language and using open ended rather than closed questions. These are all little things that make a big difference to communication.
For more information on how to use these strategies to support your child’s communication check out our blogs/courses/Sparkle
The fact that they encourage and promote everything that our school does, give us reassurance, we are all working towards the same goal and singing from the same hymn sheet, using the same strategies.
One other thing that therapists have encouraged is early intervention. Speech or language delays may be helped greatly by early input.
Do you have a young child that may need early intervention? Check out Sparkle.
What advice as a SENCO do you pass on to parents who are worried about their child’s communication?
That depends on what the worry is, so if for example they are worried about (how their child says a) certain letter sound, I would refer to NHS guidelines that gives information about what letter sounds they should be able to pronounce at certain ages. Often, I will say that I am happy to listen to the child so parents could ask their SENCO or class teacher to listen their child as they will know that age group. Asking parents for examples of what they are hearing that they think is problematic can help. I encourage parents to be as specific as possible. Is it language? is it speech? is something specific like pronouns or past tense they can’t get quite right? Then if in doubt I would ask the speech and language therapist before making a referral.
For more about identifying communication challenges and the difference between speech and language challenges check out this article.
What advice as a SENCO do you pass on to teachers to help children communicate in the classroom?
Things related to ‘Wave one quality first teaching’ e.g. Children should be able to see the teacher who is talking, lessons should be multi-sensory so children are not relying on the auditory stimulus and so they can see and touch things, lessons can also be kinaesthetic and I also look the acoustics in the classroom at the start of every year, e.g. sound proofing , making sure the walls have felt on them (this can make the sounds in the classroom easier to hear) , chairs that don’t scrape. It is important that children have the best opportunity to communicate and hear communication. Then thinking about specific special needs – individuals need to communicate, so we may use alternative resources, Makaton/sign to make sure that every child can communicate fully. Then giving the children different opportunities for communication e.g. with the teacher, 1.1, in a group, in a small group, with different people and different audiences. So, I will discuss these things with teachers.
Give me one quick thing parents can do tonight to help their child communicate
I personally like, and I use with my own children, any of the Julia Donaldson rhyming books. Encourage your child to finish off the rhyming couplet, which is great for the phonology development and that underpins their literacy and will help with their reading and writing later.
Check out our sing and rhyme article for more ideas on this!
What communication skills do expect from a four-year-old just starting school
All children develop at different rates, it is important to remember this when thinking about where your child should be, but in general I would like them to make eye contact, ask and answer questions appropriately and be able to talk to their peers about themselves. They should be able to retell a story e.g. what they did at the weekend.
What communication skills do you want a year 6 to have when they leave primary school
Again, all children develop at different rates. But to be able to have a good conversation, not go off on a tangent, stick to the topic, have more complex conversations, use more complex grammar, richer vocabulary.
Need ideas on how to make grammar fun? Check out our article!
What is your favourite word and why
Oh, that is a hard one. So many words! I think it would have to be ‘Hello’. I like greetings! And meeting people. ‘Hello’ is universal, I think anyone anywhere would be able to understand the words and the of course the gesture! It is friendly, and everyone uses it.
Finally, what does communication mean to you?
Communication is everything, without it we are unable to access many things in our daily lives, socially and academically. Being heard and being able to express your needs and opinions shouldn’t be taken for granted. I am a big chatterbox, so I should know!
Everyone should be able to do this, regardless of skill set. In our school we work towards making sure that all the children are able to access communication.
Written by Carolyn Fox, Children’s Speech and Language Therapist
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WHY YOU ARE THE KEY PLAYER IN YOUR CHILD’S THERAPY
When speech and language therapists put together a therapy program for your child, their decision will be informed by a few things: the age of your child, their main mode of communication, their understanding levels, how much language they have, what speech sounds they have and what communication skills they most need to function socially and academically. Moreover, there is one more very important factor that will be taken in to account: What the evidence says about the recommended therapy. Using research to inform decisions in therapy is crucial to ensure that your child has the best chance of reaching their goals. Therapy programs that encourage joint working between parent and therapist are known to provide better outcomes for the child. Including parents as active participants rather than observers of therapy programs is often the approach taken in the early years.
So, after seeking out support and perhaps obtaining an evaluation, you and your child may have been offered guidance by a speech and language therapist rather than 1.1. therapy sessions. Not all speech and language therapy is given by these 1:1 therapy sessions.
Why not just 1:1 sessions?
Here are some things that may have guided your speech and language therapist’s decision making:
- The research indicates that most of the learning children undergo happens incidentally i.e. by listening to the world around them. Around 98 percent of the words that your child knows will be words that are found in your own vocabulary! (Hart and Risley 2003). So, when it comes to language development, you are the biggest contributor to your child’s language and working with your is crucial!
- Guiding and supporting parents in the enrichment of their child’s communication skills is thought to provide long lasting results. Following a parent/child interaction program (Russ & Niec, 2011) found that the improvements in communication were still noticeable two years post therapy. So, signing up to a program and seeing it through, is not just a quick fix, but an investment in your child’s communication for the longer term.
Put simply, when parents fully engage with their children, communication skills improve (Roberts, M and Kaiser, A 2011). Working with a speech and language therapist to help you fine tune your interaction skills and offer support where needed, is a sure way to achieve positive results!
Speech and language therapy, your child and you!
What will I learn from following a tailored program?
More comments, less questions!
Questions are important and can help children to develop their understanding, however, we often ask too many questions! We are trained to ask questions to fill silent gaps. So, this strategy will take some planning and practice.
Speech and language therapists will encourage you to comment more. Commenting on your child’s play takes the pressure away from them and they will be more likely to provide you with spontaneous language. In addition, by commenting on what your child is doing, you are giving them the opportunity to listen to lots of language. The more language a child hears, the more likely they are to use new words., so this strategy is very effective
Repeating what your child says but adding new words to expand the sentence and make it more grammatically correct.
Provides strong language examples. Children will get a chance to hear words that they miss out e.g. ‘is’. Remember, the more a child hears, the more they are likely to learn!
We all use some gesture when we speak. 50 percent of communication involves some sort of nonverbal communication. You may point to something, or use the iconic gesture e.g. holding your hands in the shape of ball while you say ‘ball’ Using gestures every day can provide positive communication exchanges between you and your child.
Gesture has immense value when it comes to highlighting key words for children to learn. Children learn by listening and by watching and they will associate what they hear with what has been shown/signed/pointed to. Teaching your child to gesture before they can use words will also benefit their language development. Children who use gesture at a young age e.g. point to request something, will have larger vocabularies later in life (Hanen 2016)
Follow your child’s lead!
This means, letting them choose the toy they want to play with and following what they want to do with the toy. This can be hard at first as its natural to want to lead the play in order to support specific skills. Following what your child wants to do can be a strategy that suddenly opens up their communication.
Following your child’s lead shows them you are interested in what they are interested in and it takes the pressure away from them to respond to an adult led activity. As this can then make them feel more relaxed, they will be more likely to engage and attention levels will increase. Commenting on what your child is doing while they are exploring toys and games, again provides some great listening practice.
Using simple language
When children are learning language, the amount of information they can process will vary. It can be useful to break down longer sentences in to short phrases or pause before adding in more information. Many speech and language therapists will also teach you how to use information carrying words, so the language load is aimed at your child’s level of understanding. As ICWs are words that carry information, focusing on them raises your awareness to how much information you are giving your child E.G. ‘the cat’ (when shown a picture of a cat and dog, is asking your child to listen to one piece of information ‘cat’. ‘The big cat’ when shown a picture of big and small cats and dogs, is asking your child to listen for two key words (big and cat) to choose the right picture. We have a full article on this and a FREE 10 part email language course you can sign up.
Making language simple can greatly increase the likelihood that your child will be successful in following your instruction. Keeping sentences short and using key words allows you to see how much your child is understanding and therefore add in more words slowly as your gradually support their language understanding.
Use rhymes and songs
Using rhyme and song is a great way to have fun with your child whilst also optimizing their learning of new words. See our time to rhyme and sing article. You can try singing the same songs over and over or missing out a word and seeing if your child can fill in the gap.
When children hear a word repeatedly or in many different situations and contexts, learning the word becomes much easier. Rhyming also helps children learn about the structure of words, identifying what words start with the same sounds or end with the same sounds can also help literacy skills (Goswami,1986, 1988)
Share a book
Books provide repetitive language, picture support and introduce your child to new words. Reading can be a fun daily activity. If your child is interested in a story they will be more likely to learn some of the words from that story.
Listening to stories is another way for your child to meet their listening quota! The more words they listen to, the more they will use! Spending some focused time reading, commenting on the story and responding to your child’s questions is a great way to up their language! As well as increasing your child’s exposure to words, reading to your child daily will have a positive impact on their literacy levels (Read On. Get On.” report published by Save the Children)
DID YOU KNOW?…………………
You are your child’s best teacher?
When parents are given guidance to work on their child’s language via a program rather than offered 1:1 therapy the results are positive! Following a review of 18 different parent child interaction programs, improvements in understanding, language, gesture, vocabulary and grammar were all documented (Roberts and Kaiser 2011)
In fact, once given guidance and support, parents were found to have even more of a positive influence on their child’s communication skills than a speech and language therapist!
If you are worried about your child’s communication skills and feel they would benefit from some focused support, it is always worth contacting your local speech and language therapist for an assessment or advice. There are a few different parent child interaction programs available. For more information on what Iris Speaks has to offer, click here.
Written by Carolyn Fox, Children’s Speech and Language Therapist
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Roberts, M., & Kaiser, A. (2011). The Effectiveness of Parent-Implemented Language Intervention: A Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Speech-Langage Pathologie, 20, 180-199