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What are the Signs of a Speech or Language Disorder?
Authors: Saraswathy Ramamoorthy with Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE

Childcare providers and parents should watch children to see if they might have speech and language disorders. First, know the developmental milestones in speech and language. That will help you decide if there really is a problem or if the child is doing things that most children that age do. These are some signs that might indicate a problem:

Possible signs of delayed language or speech

   • Babies do not coo, babble, and make a variety of sounds in the early months of life. They remain silent.

   • Children have no real words by age 2.

   • Children are not putting two or more words together by age 3.

   • Children seem to know a lot fewer words than other children their age.

   • Children have difficulty putting sentences together after about 4 years of age. They may leave out words, leave off word
     endings, or mix up word order.

   • Children have inconsistent and incorrect grammar for their age. Note: this may be an indication of a learning disability, or
     it could be that the child has never been taught correct grammar.

Possible signs of problems in understanding language

• Children often repeat or echo things they hear, but it doesn’t make sense to them. For example, children might be able to
      repeat a TV commercial or a poem, but they can’t answer any questions about it.

    • Children can read words in print but do not understand what they read.

    • Children cannot tell you what words mean, even though most children that age would be able to do that.

    • Children can hear well, but they do not answer questions in a way that shows they understood. Or children are unable to
      follow directions that you provide.

Possible signs of problems in talking or using language

   • Children often point or use signs and gestures instead of words and sentences.

   • Children’s speech is very unclear at 4 years of age. At this age, strangers should be able to understand children most of
     the time.

   • Children have lots of trouble with certain speech sounds. For example, children might say “see” instead of “ski,” “wabbit”
      instead of “rabbit,” etc. Or they may have trouble using certain letters, such as “l,” “r,” and “d.”

   • Children stutter or stammer so much that they have trouble talking. Note: Many children might stutter or stammer a little
     when they are nervous or excited about something. This type of stuttering or stammering does not indicate a speech

   • Children cannot express their ideas. They have a hard time describing things and telling people about their ideas,
     thoughts, or feelings.

   • Children cannot use the right words while talking. Children may say a related word, such as saying “fork” for “knife.” Or
     they might use general words over and over, such as “stuff” and “thing.” They might talk about what the object does
     instead of calling it by its name, for example saying “pounding thing” for “hammer.” Or they might mix up sounds, such as
     saying “rabby bunnit”  for "bunny rabbit."

Other signs

• Children talk, but they cannot have a conversation. For example, children might ask questions, but they do not wait for
     answers. Or children might keep on talking forever without giving the other person a chance to respond. They might stay
     on the same topic, or they might jump from topic to topic.

   • Children seem nervous when they have to talk, or they totally avoid talking to others. Note: Some children may be shy,
     nervous, or cautious by nature. It is important to know the difference between those children and children who may have
    speech and language disorders.

When you notice a child displaying several of these signs over and over again, you should talk to the parents about it. Remember that talking to parents about possible disorders in their child can be difficult for both of you. It is important that you communicate sensitively with parents. You should encourage the parents to have their child tested so that treatment can start as soon as possible. If you have speech and language testing available at your center, you may want to encourage parents to use this service.

Encouraging children to talk

Go to   • What are some types of speech and language disorders?
           Identification and evaluation of speech-language disorders

For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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