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Assessing Language Skills

Wendy LeeSpeech and Language Therapist Wendy Lee shares with us her advice and suggestions for checking out children’s early speech and language skills. Wendy has worked as a speech and language therapist for 30 years and until recently was Professional Director at The Communication Trust. Wendy’s passion is for all children to be able to communicate to the very best of their ability. She is currently working independently, with schools, settings and national organisations on all things speech, language and communication.

We all know the importance of communication, but it’s sometimes difficult to know whether children have age-appropriate skills. All language develops following a typical pattern and although children are different, there are specific things they should be doing at certain ages. So, what do you need to look out for?

  1. Check out children’s understanding – they need to understand words, sentences, stories and longer instructions. Children can sometimes hide difficulties with understanding, so observe them carefully to see whether they are picking up on routines and gestures instead of really understand the actual words being spoken.
  2. Check out children’s talking – they need to learn new words and be able to combine them in sentences so that they make sense to other people. Try observing children in conversations with peers and play alongside them to make sure they know the names of objects and actions, and can describe them. Can they put sentences together? Do they use a good range of words or do they over-rely on gestures, pointing or using empty words, such as ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘thingy’, etc. Young children will still make mistakes, for example, saying ‘goed’ instead of ‘went’. However, these are to be expected as they work out the rules of grammar.
  3. Check out children’s speech – they need to use sounds that make up words and sentences. These sounds develop in a particular way, with earlier sounds, such as ‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘m’ developing before later sounds, such as ‘th’ and ‘r’. Simple sound combinations, such as ‘daddy’ and ‘cat’, develop before more complicated combinations, such as ‘elephant’ or ‘spider’. If you listen to young children, can you understand what they are saying? Is their speech clear? They may still make simple mistakes, such as saying ‘weeties’ for ‘sweeties’, but you should be able to follow what they are saying.
  4. Check out non-verbal communication – they need to be able to listen, take turns and follow the rules of conversations. Young children will still be developing these skills. Look out for how they play with other children: Do they take turns and share space? Are they using their language to organise their games and activities, to role play and use their language imaginatively?

10 Top Tips and Key Questions for Checking Out Speech and Language Development

  1. Find out what your children’s language development should be for their age. There is a lot of information which can help you. 1 2 3
  2. Observe with this in mind.
  3. Comment on what children are saying or ask open questions and see how the children respond.
  4. Do they understand the words being spoken? Do they avoid areas of the setting where lots of language is needed, e.g. role-play areas? Do they look a bit ‘lost’? Do they watch and follow other children?
  5. Are they using lots of words to talk about things around them?
  6. Are they putting words together into sentences?
  7. How clear is their speech? Do you understand what they are saying?
  8. Are they getting frustrated or struggling to get their message across?
  9. Are they very quiet or always playing alone?
  10. Are they playing and interacting with others or are they isolated? Is their play repetitive or non-imaginative?

If you are worried, you should have procedures in your setting for talking with parents/carers, referring on to specialists, such as speech and language therapists, or you may have interventions or strategies that can help.


Progress PacksOur multisensory Progress Packs offer collections of resources to help support children in your setting with language and communication delays. Available for Early Language, Early Literacy and Listening, these great value kits will help to boost early language and communication development and instil confidence in those needing extra support.

  1. Small Talk: How Children Learn to Talk from 0–5
  2. Universally Speaking: Language Development from 0–5
  3. Online Progress Checker
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