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Speech and Language Development in Preschoolers

By K. Lee Banks ; Updated June 13, 2017

The greatest period of growth in speech and language development occurs in preschool children between 2 to 5 years of age. Organizations such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the National Literacy Trust and the University of Michigan Health System provide valuable insight into this crucial time during which preschoolers attain specific developmental milestones. As parents, you will want to observe and listen to your children as they acquire communication skills. Early diagnosis of any potential developmental delay in speech and language will benefit your child now and in the future.

Receptive and Expressive Language

Receptive and expressive languages are the two main areas of speech and language development, with pragmatics acting as an expansion of expressive language for social communication. Hearing and understanding spoken words comprise receptive language, while speaking and using words appropriately classify as expressive language. In both cases, part of speech and language development includes the ability to distinguish and use the correct tone, emotion or reasoning conducive to the setting.

Factors Contributing to Language Development

Neurologist John Geake identified various factors within brain development that contribute to speech and language development. His research confirmed that while the entire brain engages in this process, each hemisphere manages specific portions of language development: grammar and speech in the left hemisphere and actions, feelings and word meanings in the right hemisphere. Boys often exhibit slower speech and language development due to the effect of testosterone on the left hemisphere of their brains. The inhibiting effect often causes distraction and restlessness, resulting in boys paying less attention to communicating, while girls tend to speak sooner and interact more socially.

Development in 2-to-5 Year Olds

As your preschooler progresses from the ages of 2 to 5 years old, her language development and communication skills typically increase at an amazing pace. At 2 years old, she generally uses phrases or brief sentences of two words and understands the word “no.” Between 2 to 3 years old, your preschooler’s vocabulary increases to about 450 words, she refers to herself as “me” and she can create short sentences with nouns and verbs. During the next two-year range from 3 to 5 years old, your child usually acquires a vocabulary of 1,000 to 1,500 words, uses sentences of several words, distinguishes between present and past tense, knows her full name, enjoys telling stories and reciting nursery rhymes, and understands concepts such as colors, shapes and sizes.

Each Child Has His Own Pace

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association emphasizes that each child reaches development milestones at his own pace. Some preschoolers, especially boys, may simply be “late bloomers” in acquiring speech and language skills. If your child appears to be progressing at a slower pace than peers his age, this is not necessarily cause for concern. Continue to encourage your preschooler to talk, read books to him, introduce new concepts such as colors and numbers and provide one-on-one interaction as you monitor his progress.

What to Watch For

As many as 10 percent of preschoolers exhibit some type of speech or language delay or disorder, according to the University of Michigan Health System. If you have any concerns about your child’s language development, consult with his pediatrician to rule out potential physiological causes such as hearing loss, cleft palate or autism. If there appears to be no physiological basis for your preschooler’s language delay, ASHA recommends visiting a certified speech-language pathologist who can conduct evaluations to assess your child’s receptive and expressive language skills and determine any barriers to language development. The SLP can also advise you about the best course of action, which may include regular speech therapy sessions for your preschooler, as well as activities that you can do at home to stimulate and encourage your child’s speech and language development.

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