Headstart for Life

Red Flags for Language Development of Preschoolers

What do I say?

What do I say?

As children grow, it is typical for parents to become anxious about whether their children are hitting the right developmental language milestones. Although children grow differently, various developmental milestones are achieved within the same age range for most children. There might be instances whereby, as parents,  you become concerned about the development of your child’s language because he/she might be missing some. Then you start asking the questions:

  • Does my child have difficulty understanding what I’m telling him?
  • Does my child have language delay?
  • Why is my child not talking yet?
  • Does he have a language disorder?

Let us understand what language is and what are the red flags to look out for in our developing children.

What do you mean by “language”?

Language is the means of communicating with the people around us. It can be divided into 2 broad categories.

  • Receptive Language (Understanding)
    Refers to a childs understanding of information received through speech, signs, gesture or written communication
  • Expressive Language (Expression)
    Refers to a childs ability to, through words, sign language, gestures or by written word, communicate with others in the environment

Broken carBut my child can speak clearly. Everyone knows exactly what words he is saying.

That is great! This means that there are no issues with his speech, which refers to how clear his words sound. However, a child who is completely intelligible may still have language difficulties. For example, he may say “car” clearly but does not put 2 words together to tell his mother that the car is broken and needs fixing (e.g. “Broken car!” or “Fix car!”). As children grow older, they are expected to put words together to form longer phrases and eventually sentences. This may become a problem if your child is stuck in using only one word by the time he reached the age of 2 years.

How will I know if my child has a language problem? 

As a parent, you can play your part by looking out for these red flags relevant for preschool children. Below are some important pointers to look out for in your child’s development. If your child is unable to reach a specific development milestone, it does not mean that he has language disorder. However, the following guide will help you decide whether your child needs professional help.

Speaking to your child’s teachers may also be helpful as they work with many children on a regular basis and are familiar with the skills that are expected for each age level. They will be able to inform you if they suspect some difficulties.

Red flags (Receptive Language)

  • Limited vocabulary/comprehension of words (Children by the age of 3, comprehends approximately 900 words). These include:
    • Nouns and verbs
    • Qualitative concepts (big, small, colours)
    • Spatial concepts (in, out, between, in front, behind)
    • Time/sequential concepts (first, last, morning, night)
    • Number concepts (more, most, 5 blocks, all, some)
  • Difficulty following commands involving two or more actions
  • Depends too much on repetition and assistance
  • Long, frequent pauses/thinking of what to say
  • Difficulty following sequenced routines of daily activities (bedtime, bathing, meals)
  • Difficulty listening to stories (at least 10 minutes)
  • Difficulty appreciating rote matters (counting, alphabet, Nursery Rhymes)

Red flags (Expressive Language)

  • Short, limited number of words (We will expect at least 3 word sentences from 3 year olds and 6 word sentences from 6 year olds)
  • Limited sentence structures
  • Difficulty answering yes/no and wh questions (what, where, when, how, why)
  • Difficulty expressing rote counting, alphabet and nursery rhymes
  • Unable to consistently verbalise needs and wants
  • Unable to tell two or more events in order of sequence (stories seen/read/heard/experienced)
  • Does not engage in short dialogues/conversation
  • Does not react/express feelings accordingly
  • Prefers to be alone
  • Exhibits injurious behaviours to him/herself and others
  • Expresses him/herself in an unconventional way (head banging, biting)

I think my child has difficulties with his language! What can I do?

Seek help early to help facilitate his language development. Trained professionals known as speech-language therapists (also known as speech therapists or speech-language pathologists) can tell you more information about the language and communication skills of a child. They will be able to assess and determine if your child does have difficulties with language.

Speech therapists address several aspects of a child’s development, including speech, language, swallowing, voice and fluency. Intervention may consist of direct activities with the child and discussions about how you can provide a more conducive environment for language learning. The support from a parent can go a long way in helping a child’s language development!

Happy communicators are happy children!

Happy communicators are happy children!

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jia Yue

Jia Yue has a keen interest in working with children with special needs, particularly autism spectrum disorders, whose difficulties may include the areas of speech, language, and social skills. She has been working with children with special needs for the past few years and loves to browse through toy stores for new therapy ideas in her free time.

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