Speech and language development - what to expect 1 - 3 years

Repetition is very important to the acquisition of language. Infants and young children need to hear words over and over again. Some studies suggest that young children need to hear words from four to 250 times before they can accurately use them in their speech.

Children whose parents talk to them frequently have better language and vocabulary skills than those who seldom talk to them. Studies have found that the vocabulary of toddlers whose parents are talkative are measurably larger than those who offer less language stimulation.

In the first few years of life children need to learn and acquire many skills. These are mainly learned through the interaction between infant or child and their caregiver. Skills include:

  • taking turns
  • waiting
  • anticipation
  • listening
  • attention
  • understanding and knowledge of the world around them
  • interacting with others


Age 1-2 years: what to expect

Most toddlers will be:

  • using pointing to direct another person’s gaze (along with vocalisation or word attempt)
  • attempting some single words that are recognisable to familiar people (and some will be beginning to combine words at around two years old)
  • showing pleasure when they get feedback when naming or identifying an object, person, or picture successfully
  • able to follow a simple instruction like ‘get your shoes’, ‘put the paper in the bin’
  • beginning to play imaginatively, such as pretending to speak on a toy phone

1-2 years: indicators for concern

  • the child shows very little intention to communicate and no meaningful words are used
  • lack of understanding of short everyday instructions. Consistently needs to have a visual or additional prompt to understand everyday vocabulary eg shows excitement only when the sound of the bath running is heard or needs you to point to indicate that you are going outside
  • lack of interest in social play and interaction with family members

2-3 years: what to expect

Most 2-3 year olds:

  • are putting together short phrases eg ‘daddy car’ or ‘Evan school now’
  • have an expanding vocabulary and may be stumbling over their words as their phrases expand
  • can be difficult to understand as their speech sound system is still developing
  • show more sustained role play (putting doll or teddy to bed, washing teddy)

2-3 years: indicators for concern

  • the child has a limited vocabulary of mainly single words
  • the child doesn’t show a clear understanding of (motivating) instructions or questions eg “you can have another biscuit from the box”, “Go and get your coat and boots on.”
  • lack of response to adult initiation of social interaction
  • lack of use of eye contact in interaction

Local speech and language therapy services can be accessed through a GP, health visitor and they also accept direct referrals as there is an open referral system

According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ Communicating Quality 3  a 'Speech, language and communication difficulty may impact on future learning and achievement, literacy, behaviour and social-emotional functioning and independence.'  

A speech and language therapy service can have an essential role in:

  • promoting the development of speech, language, communication  in targeted at-risk groups eg pre-school children in areas of high socio-economic deprivation
  • educating and empowering parents, carers, educational/social services and significant others in the support and development of children’s speech, language and communication skills.'

As well as:

  • 'Maximising the development of referred children’s speech, language, communication and eating/drinking skills.'

Families can benefit from support and guidance in promoting their children’s communication skills within everyday play and interaction.


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