Language Development

Language and Communication Development


Understanding (receptive) language is the ability to understand what is being said, including the ability to follow directions. This typically develops first. 


Expressive language is the ability to communicate our thought or ideas using words. Expression can also include gestures. 

Social Communication

Social language skills (pragmatics) involves how we use language, including non-verbal language (e.g. body language)

Before Words

There are developmental milestones which typically occur prior to verbal (expressive) language. They don't necessarily occur before verbal language, however, these skills provide children with the building blocks they need for verbal language. 

Pre-Verbal Communication Skills

  • Imitation is also very important. Children can't learn words if they can't copy them. Imitation starts at the motor level, with your child imitating gestures. Then moving toward copying faces. And eventually imitating sounds, like animal noises. 

  • A key component in language development is gestures. Examples include pointing, waving, raising arms to be picked up, or shrugging shoulders. 

  • The first level of skills needed includes the ability to attend to other people. This can be demonstrated by the ability to react to their environment, follow simple directions, or responds to their name. The ability to attend for increasingly longer periods is helpful with language development.  

Social Interaction
  • This level of skills includes joint attention and showing or sharing. Your child responds to others when they try to intact with your child. This might look like your child holding a toy to show you how great it is or playing peek-a-boo. 

  • Your child will start initiating interaction with other to have their needs met. They may push or pull you, or take your hand. Other initiations may be playful, with your child trying to start playing games with you (peek-a-boo). 

  • During play, your child should start to participate in back and forth exchanges (rolling a ball between you). And play with a variety of toys appropriately. Play is your child's work. They learn the most when they play. 

Please see the Communication Milestones page for when these typically develop. Your Speech Language Pathologist can discuss these skills with you more in depth.


Beginning to teach your child new words can be overwhelming! Although the first thing that comes to mind may be colors, numbers, or the alphabet, research shows that teaching frequently used words that have a functional purpose and can be used across many daily routines is the best place to start.

Core Vocabulary

Core vocabulary refers to the small number of words that make up ~70-90% of what we say on a daily basis in many contexts. Some examples of core vocabulary include: stop, go, get, more, turn, mine, on, off, up, down, that. Learning these words will help your child take control of their environment, have their needs met, and interact socially with friends and family. They can eventually combine core words to make phrases that help them communicate their wants and needs throughout the day: "get that," "go up," "stop that," "turn that up," "turn that off," "go more," "that mine," "get that down." Core vocabulary is so powerful because it allows beginning communicators to express a wide variety of concepts with a very small number of words. For words to teach at home, click on the "Core Word List" link in the 'Resources' section below.

Functional Words

Functional communication refers to the words that help your child make their basic wants and needs known. Children will be more likely to communicate if they have access to functional vocabulary, in other words, if they have vocabulary that allows them to do the things they want to do. It is important to focus on teaching words/phrases that your child can use for the functional purposes such as: 

  • interacting with family and friends: "play," "come with me"

  • asking for things toys/games that they enjoy: "ball," "I want train"

  • calling attention to objects, people, or events: "look!," "watch me!"

  • asking simple questions: "what's that?," "who is it?"

  • asking for assistance: "help," "I need you"

  • telling when they are hurt: "ouch," "my (body part)"

Speech Sound Development

Speech Sound Acquisition

Children learn speech sounds in a similar order and are able to make more sounds as they continue to grow older. For more information about the sounds your child can work on at home, click on the "Speech Acquisition Chart" link in the 'Resources' section below.

Phonological Processes

Children make sound errors called phonological processes to simplify their speech as they are learning to talk. They do this because they don't have the ability to coordinate the lips, tongue, teeth, palate and jaw for clear speech. These errors are normal and should disappear by a certain age. To learn more, click on the "Phonological Processes" link in the 'Resources' section below.

Speech Intelligibility

Intelligibility is how well your child is understood by a variety of listeners. It is important to remember that parents and caregivers will understand more of the child's speech than an unfamiliar listener.

Intelligibility Chart:

  • ~25% of speech understood by 18 months

  • ~50-75% of speech understood by 24 months

  • ~75-100% of speech understood by 36 months

Bowen, C. (2011). Table1: Intelligibility. Retrieved from Speach and Language Therapy dot com on [4/19/2020].


Early Intervention Research Group at Northwestern University 

Baby Signing Time

Core Word List

Project Core Communication Board

Speech Acquisition Chart taken from Charles Sturt University and is based on research from McLeod & Crowe, 2018. 

Phonological Processes Chart by Mommy Speech Therapy

Here are some "quick tips for reading to young children who don't like to be read to" by Cari Ebert.