Language refers to understanding and using words and sentences to communicate with others.
On this page:
Children’s language – Overview
Receptive language refers to comprehension or understanding what others say. Receptive language skills are essential for making sense of the sentences we hear or read, such as understanding questions, and following instructions.
Some children have trouble understanding what others say or write. They might have difficulty:
- Following directions
- Answering questions
- Understanding concepts (e.g., where something is and what it looks like)
Expressive language is the way we use words and sentences to express our thoughts, feelings, and ideas. We rely on expressive language skills to talk with others, build relationships, express our views, and participate in activities.
Some children have trouble using words and sentences. They might have difficulty:
- Asking questions
- Using all the words in a sentence, including little words (e.g., a and the) and grammar to add meaning (e.g., cat versus cats)
- Putting words in the right order in a sentence
- Naming objects or pictures
- Telling a story
- Using words to tell someone what they want or how they feel
Speech pathologists help children who have language difficulties.
For many children, there is no known cause for their difficulty with understanding and/or using language. There are different terms that are used to describe language difficulties in children. These include developmental language disorder (DLD), specific language impairment (SLI), language delay, and language impairment.
The below short video explains:
- What is language?
- What should a child know and when?
- How can I help a child with language difficulties?
What should a child know and when?
Children learn language skills at different ages.
Children typically say their first real words at 12 months of age. These are most often names of people and objects (e.g., ball, car). They begin to put two words together (e.g., throw ball) and understand two-step instructions (e.g., give me the ball and the car) by two years of age. Children’s vocabularies continue to grow to include different words, including action words (e.g., jump, push) and describing words (e.g., big, fluffy). Children typically say sentences containing four to five words by 3 years of age. By five years of age, children typically say and understand more complex sentences and can tell simple stories.
To find out more information about children’s language development across different ages, visit the following websites:
- Speech Pathology Australia – look under the ‘Resources for the public – Factsheets” section and download “Communication Milestones”.
- Words For Life website – Milestones (select the appropriate age range)
- Raising Children – The Australian Parenting Website
- Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (RADLD)
What can I do to help?
You can help young children learn words and sentences in different ways.
Read books with children every day. Talk about the pictures, and what children are interested in on the page.
Play games and do activities together. Think of words that match the activity (names, actions, describing words). Say these words often to during the game (e.g., blocks, box, put on, stack, fell). Say the words in short sentences too (e.g., stack the blocks, the blocks fell down). Pause and give children a chance to try and say the words.
Repeat what children have said. This shows children that you are interested in what they say. Make their sentences a little longer by adding some words.
- Repeat back sentences to add information…
Child: Jump up
Adult: Big jump up
- Repeat back sentences to make them clearer…
Child: Dog woof!
Adult: The dog says woof!
Praise children if they attempt to copy the longer sentences you say. It is okay if they do not copy you.
Listed below are some handouts with practical activities/ideas you can do with children to help their language development.
Download the summary page for tips on helping children with language.
Helping children with language:
Download the language resource for the complete collection of language handouts.
The handouts include suggested play-based activities and books that provide opportunities for children to hear and learn about different words, sentences, and uses of language.
I want to help a child to:
Click on the links below for information about helping children with different aspects of their language development.
- Use more words
- Use longer sentences
- Use clearer sentences
- Ask for things (requesting)
- Use words to disagree
- Ask questions
- Answer questions
- Use describing words
- Tell a story or describe what happened
- Use emotion words
- Use little words in sentences
Click on the links below for more information about supporting children’s language development:
- Words For Life has ideas for fun activities to do with children. Once on the site, click on the relevant age range and then click the “Fun stuff” link.
- Day by Day: Learning Together is a free app with fun everyday ideas to help children aged 0-3 years learn language skills.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has detailed information about late language emergence in children (2-4 years).
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has detailed information about spoken language disorders (3-21 years).
Check with your local library for story time or other children’s groups that may be held at the library.