Speech and Language

Over one million children in the UK have some kind of speech, language and communication need. This is known as SLCN for short.

Every child is different. Their needs depend on different factors, including:

Which areas of speech, language and communication they struggle with.

  • How severely these areas are affected.
  • What skills and strengths they have.
  • How they need to use their skills.
  • Their level of confidence and self-esteem.

There are four broad areas of needs when it comes to SLCN:

  • Difficulties with Speech Sounds
  • Difficulties with Understanding Language, also known as receptive skills.
  • Difficulties with Producing language, also known as expressive skills.
  • Difficulty with using Language in the Appropriate Context., also known as social skills or pragmatic skills.

Some children may have difficulty in only one of these areas. Others may have difficulty in more than one.

Some children may have difficulties that can be helped quite easily. Others may have greater needs. Some children will have life-long difficulties that will affect them significantly.

Sometimes children develop their skills in the usual way, but at a slower rate. This is often called a ‘delay’ or ‘delayed speech and language development’.

Sometimes children may have specific difficulties with speech and language, and this is called 'SLI', which stands for specific language impairment. 


What causes speech and language problems?

Developmental speech and language delays are a common reason for speech/language problems in children. These learning disorders are caused by the brain working differently. A child may have trouble producing speech sounds, using spoken language to communicate, or understanding what other people say. Speech and language problems are often the earliest sign of a learning disability.  

Hearing loss is often overlooked, and easily identified. If a child has a speech/language delay, their hearing should be tested.

Extreme environmental deprivation can cause speech delay. If a child is neglected or abused and does not hear others speaking, they will not learn to speak.

Prematurity can lead to many kinds of developmental delays, including speech/language problems.

Auditory processing disorder describes a problem with decoding speech sounds. Children with this disorder can improve with speech and language therapy.

Neurological problems like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury can affect the muscles needed for speaking.

Autism affects communication. Speech/language/communication problems are often an early sign of autism.

Apraxia or speech is a specific speech disorder in which the child has difficulty in sequencing and executing speech movements.

Selective mutism is when a child will not talk at all in certain situations, often school.


Milestones that demonstrate normal speech development:



Language Level



2-3 mths

Coos in response to you, smiles

6 mths

Babbles, turns and looks at new sounds

8 mths

Responds to name, pats self in mirror

10 mths

Shouts to attract attention, says a syllable repeatedly

12 mths

Says 1-2 words; recognizes name; imitates familiar sounds; points to objects

12-17 mths

Understands simple instructions, imitates familiar words, understands “no,” uses “mama” “dada” and a few other words

18 mths

Uses 10-20 words, including names, starts to combine 2 words “all gone,” “bye-bye mama,” uses words to make wants known “up” “all done” or “more;” knows body parts

2 mths

Says 2-3 word sentences; has >50 words, asks “what’s this” and “where’s my” vocabulary is growing; identifies body parts, names pictures in book, forms some plurals by adding “s”

2 ½ yrs

Gives first name; calls self “me” instead of name; combines nouns and verbs; has a 450 word vocabulary; uses short sentences; matches 3-4 colors, knows big and little; likes to hear same story repeated

3 yys

Can tell a story; sentence length of 3-4 words; vocabulary of about 1000 words; knows last name, name of street, several nursery rhymes, can sing songs

4 yrs

Sentence length of 4-5 words; uses past tense; identifies colors, shapes; asks many questions like “why?” and “who?” Can speak of imaginary conditions “I hope” Uses following sounds correctly: b, d, f, g, h, m, n, ng, t, w, y (as in yes)


Supporting Assessment

Many children who have speech difficulties attend a childcare setting; these children are supported in varies way depending on the level of support needed. Often practitioners will attend outside training courses to acquire the necessary skills to help support the children within the nursery. If practitioners are not qualified enough to support these children outside agencies such as Speech and Language Therapists are invited in to give their advice and support.
To support children’s language and communication development within the setting practitoners can use Every Child a Talker Communicating Tool. This support tool can be used by practitioners to determine whether children require further support in this area of development. It is fundamental that the key person works closely with the parents to help support the child both at home and at nursery. 
How a practitoner can support a child with a speech and language delay:
  • Gathering observations and evidence – Having a collection of observations and evidence can help when it comes to referring a child to an outside agency such as a Speech Therapist.
  • Give children time – Never rush children when they are talking and complete their sentences. Give them plenty of time to finish what they are saying. If an adult finishes a child’s sentences, this can cause frustration for the child, sometimes lead to them becoming reluctant to talk.
  • Use pictures and gesture to support language – Use pictures and gestures to help children convey their meaning, point to the picture and repeat the word and wait for the child’s response. Always use language alongside using the picture cards and gestures as this helps model the correct spoken language.
  • Never correct children – When a child says something that doesn’t sound right don’t correct them just repeat back the correct spoken word, role modelling is more effective than correcting the child. Also by always correcting the child this can often lead to low self-esteem.
  • Incorporating simple listening and attention activities – It can be beneficial to all children if simple listening and attention activities are incorporated into the day, this can be as simple as listening to sounds out in the garden, etc. By integrating these activities, it can help improve children’s listening skills which are an important part of helping them to communicate.


Developmental Impact

Difficulties in one or more of these areas can have a profound impact on a child's experience of their early education. How each child is affected will depend on the degree of their difficulty and personal factors.


Following Routines

Owing to these problems, children with speech and language difficulties may struggle to follow and learn daily routines – e.g. if they find it hard to understand spoken language children may struggle to follow instructions, especially negatives such as the difference between "do" something and "don't" do something.


Complex sentences

They may also find sentences with more than one element difficult – e.g. “Get some paper and pencils and go and sit in the drawing corner.” The child may be able to follow the individual elements of the sentence but when they are combined into one, they can't process everything at once. Keeping sentences short and supporting information with gesture will help.


Expressing themselves

Children who find it hard to make themselves understood by adults or other children will find their ability to join in activities and tell people things, ask questions, relate stories, and form friendships is inhibited. They may be unable to join in with songs or nursery rhymes and have difficulty following stories and remembering information. In this situation, offering a choice with words to go with that choice may help, e.g. "Do you want to play with the cars or paint?"


Attention and listening

Difficulties in attention and listening can make it hard for children to get the most out of free-play sessions, their ability to take turns may be affected, and they may find it hard to listen to and retain instructions. Poor awareness of time and the sequence of routine events can lead to children becoming insecure, especially if the routine they have learned is changed. Sticking to a set routine and having pictures that relate to that routine in order upon on the wall may help.


Behaviour problems

The feelings of frustration and confusion that can arise from speech and language difficulties can result in behaviour problems. Children may either vent their frustration and anger in very obvious ways or become very quiet and withdrawn when they feel the act of communication is too difficult to keep on trying.


Support in education

In addition to these more general difficulties, children with speech and language problems can encounter specific difficulties in accessing the early years curriculum. Many, if not all of the Early Learning Goals rely directly or indirectly on a child being a competent listener and communicator. Children with difficulties in any of the areas discussed here will need support to get the most out of their early years experience.


How can we Help?

A range of practical strategies can be used in an early years setting to identify and support children who may have a speech and language problem.

Some children find using visual clues and reminders very useful in helping them follow routine and learn new words and concepts. Use pictures or photos of the children themselves doing the activities, to represent different activities in the day as a visual timetable. Pictures can also be used to help children to choose activities.

If speaking is a problem, children could point to a picture of what they want to do. Make sure you demonstrate activities before you ask children to do them, so they have practical, visual information on the sequence of actions they need to do to get to the outcome you want.

You could also consider using Makaton or another sign language to help your child express themselves even if they are unable to form the words.

One of the hardest things to do when you are a fluent adult speaker is to be aware of your own language when talking to children, but this is also one of the most important areas where you can help children develop their language skills. Slow down the rate of your speech, simplify your language and repeat new words and ideas often.

Don't feel you have to fill in silence with lots of talking - some children need more time to think before they speak. Make sure you leave gaps for them to fill in. Try to reduce the number of questions you ask and emphasise the important words in the sentence, the ones that carry the information, e.g. "Look, here's the big teddy.”

Try to cue children in to what you are doing - say their name, wait for them to look at you. You may need to model language for them by giving them a choice e.g. "Do you want juice or milk?" Or you can repeat what the child has said to confirm you have understood them and to let them hear how the words should sound.

Use simple repetitive language for familiar activities, comment on what children are doing in their free play sessions, and try to expand what they say by adding a few words. For example a child might shout: "Truck!" The adult should reply: "That's right, it's a big, blue truck.”

Involve your child's key person. It can be invaluable if you give them information which could help develop your child's communication skills – e.g. tell them if your child has special words or gestures for things. Finally, if you feel your child has significant speech and language needs, your child can be referred to your local Speech and Language Therapist for specialist assessment and advice.

It is vital that children listen to language. Most children are interested in language and will do this quite naturally. However, some children find it difficult to pay attention and listen and this could affect their language development.

Attention and listening skills help develop social skills. Children need to learn to focus on another person and listen to them in order to take turns, make eye contact, and to engage in conversation and play. You can help them by:

  • Removing distractions. Children will be more able to focus if the noise level is low and distractions are kept to a minimum, so turn the TV and radio off if you want their full attention.
  • Looking at your child when you are talking to them. This reinforces the importance of making eye contact and demonstrates that you are listening to them.
  • Praising good attention and listening skills. Positive feedback will help your child know that they are getting it right and developing these skills.

Further Information and Support 








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