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)

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 section 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 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].


By 6 Months - Listens and responds when spoken to

  • Smile and make vocal sounds, including some consonant sounds. 
  • Respond to vocalizations from others. 
  • Make eye contact.

By 12 Months - Meaningfully uses "mama" or "dada"

  • Imitate simple gestures (reaching, clapping) and facial expressions. 
  • Turn head when name is called. 
  • Attempt to interact with adults by looking, reaching, or vocalizing. 
  • Play social games by taking a turn (e.g., peek-a-boo). 
  • Share attention (e.g., child follows your gaze and looks at something when you point). 
  • Babble and makes sounds.

By 15 months - May use 5-10 words

  • Copies simple sounds/sound combinations. 
  • Says "mama" or "dada" meaningfully. 
  • Uses gestures to communicate wants or needs (e.g., points, shakes head "no"). 
  • Follows simple routine directions with gesture (e.g., follows "give me" when adult holds out hand). 
  • Has one or two "real" words.

By 18 months - May use 5-10 words

  • Says new words regularly. 
  • Points at something to show others. 
  • Can imitate, or attempts to imitate, new words. 
  • Has five to 10 functional words (Please see the Vocabulary section for more information about "functional" words). 
  • Understands names of common objects in their environment. 
  • Follow simple directions without gestures (e.g., "give the ball to mom" without mom extending a hand or pointing).

By 24 months - Begins to use 2 word phrases

  • Use vocalizations with gestures to communicate (may or may not include real words, but jargon). 
  • Has at least 25 words. 
  • Uses m, p, b, t, d consonant sounds in their speech. (Further information can be found under the Speech Sound Development section). 
  • Starts to combine two words.

By 30 months - Spends time in the world of pretend

  • Points to named pictures. 
  • Starts using three-word phrases. 
  • Imitates words regularly. 
  • Starts asking questions. 
  • Uses different types of words (e.g., labels, names, requests, action words). 
  • Understands differences in size (big vs. little). has a multitude of videos covering different developmental milestones. 

Strategies for Home

This page has a few different techniques (there are MANY others!) that you can use with your child to stimulate language. Please talk with your Speech Language Pathologist. They can help guide you to what may work best for you and your child. 


One of the greatest tools you have to help your child, is to wait. Give them time to respond. Try counting to 7 for them to respond. You will be surprised how long it is!


Talk about what you are doing. As simple as that! Narrate, or self-talk, while you are cooking or cleaning. 

Add 1 Word

The +1 technique is when you add an additional word to your child's verbalization. If they say "help." You could add to it by saying "help me."


Using the same word or phrase repeatedly during an activity. "I see a dog. It's a big dog. Pet the dog."


When you child says a word, you can model the word back for them appropriately. Don't pressure them to say it correctly, just provide the example of how it should sound. 

Give Choices

Give your child two options and name these options.  "Do you want a banana or an apple?" Your child may not verbally respond, but you have provided them with the words you want them to learn.


Use more comments than questions. For every question you ask your child, try to make three simple statements related to the topic. 

  • Keep in mind that speech sounds develop in stages, so your child's words may not sound clear right away--that's perfectly okay!
  • Get a mirror out, let your child have fun looking at their mouth and help them notice the structures that help them make sounds (lips, tongue, teeth, etc.).
  • To increase awareness of speech structures, practice making silly faces and blowing kisses while looking in the mirror.
  • To work on early developing "lip sounds" (p, b, m), make funny noises with the lips such as popping sounds or smacking the lips together. 
  • Model correct production of a word rather than telling your child they said something incorrectly. For example, if your child says "ea-" for the word eat, naturally model the correct way to say the word by saying, "Okay, we can eat."
  • Use visual or verbal prompts to help your child make early developing sounds. For example, you can use an index finger to gently guide your child's lips together to make sounds p, b, and m. Ask your SLP for more information and ideas.
  • Repeat, Repeat, Repeat! --With plenty of repetition your child's words will begin to sound clearer. Come up with ways to practice a word throughout your day and make it fun by using songs, rhymes, and play!

One of the best ways to implement strategies is to embedded them into your every routines, including: meal time, bath time, reading, bed time, going out, self care, and helping around the house. 

Your Speech Language Pathologist can help to tailor these strategies so they fit your routine and your child's strengths. 

Baby Signs

Before words emerge, other types of communication strategies can be helpful to reduce frustration and encourage communication attempts. Baby signs are a great way to help your child better communicate and will not inhibit verbal language development. Talk with your Speech Language Pathologist if you are interested in introducing baby signs, and additional resources

Picture Communication

Another way to help your child communicate before words emerge is by using pictures. Using pictures to communicate often builds confidence and reduces challenging behaviors and frustration. Examples include: an individualized menu of favorite foods posted on your refrigerator, choosing from pictures of favorite songs to sing with you, a simple communication board to make requests with frequently used words (i.e. more/all done, in/out, stop/go). Using alternative ways to communicate such as picture exchange systems and/or communication boards does not inhibit verbal language from developing. Research shows that these methods often support and even facilitate language development. Talk to your Speech Language Pathologist if you are interested in developing an individualized picture communication system or communication board with your child.

Project Core Communication Board - To see an example of a communication board

ADA & Accessibility

Our School Strives To Ensure Our Website Is Accessible To All Our Visitors 

Washtenaw ISD is committed to providing a website that is fully accessible and we are currently in the process of developing a new website to better meet the needs of our customers. Our new website will include improvements to ADA compliance and accessibility, and during this transition, we remain committed to maintaining our existing website's accessibility and usability. 

ADA Compliance

Non Discrimination

It is the policy and commitment of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age, height, weight, familial status, marital status, genetic information, sexual orientation or any legally protected characteristic, in its educational programs, activities, admissions, or employment policies in accordance with Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments, executive order 11246 as amended, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and all other pertinent state and Federal regulations.

Non Discrimination Information

ADA and Title IX Coordinator ADA and Title IX Coordinator
Brian Marcel
Associate Superintendent
1819 S. Wagner Road 
Ann Arbor, MI  48103
(734) 994-8100 ext. 1402
Cassandra Harmon-Higgins
Executive Director, HR & Legal Services
1819 S. Wagner Road 
Ann Arbor, MI  48103
(734) 994-8100 ext. 1311