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What To Do About a Late Talker


By Carrie Clark, CCC-SLP

Who is a late talker?

All children learn to speak at their own pace.  Some children say their first words quite early while others take a little longer.  If your child is using significantly fewer words than he should be at his age, he may be a late talker.  Typically, we expect to see children saying the following number of words by age:

Age of Child   Number of Words
12 months 2-6 words
15 months 10 words
18 months 50 words

24 months 

200-300 words
30 months 450 words
36 months  1,000 words
42 months 1,200 words


If your child is using significantly fewer words than what is listed in this chart but seems to be developing normally otherwise, your child may be a late talker.

What to Do About Late Talkers

There are several things you can do to help your child if you suspect that she may be a late talker.  My top recommendations are below.  Or, for a step-by-step 8-week program you can use at home, check out my e-book: Jump Start Your Late Talker.

1. Call a Speech-Language Pathologist

This should always be your first step if you suspect a problem with your child’s communication development.  No internet article or blog post can diagnose your child or tell you exactly which type of therapy will work the best for your child.  However, while you are waiting to get in to see a speech therapist or while your child is enrolled in therapy, there are many things you can do at home to help.  Keep reading to learn more!

2. Cut Back or Eliminate Screen Time

Any time your child spends in front of a screen is considered screen time.  This includes watching TV, watching movies, playing on a computer or tablet, playing with a smart phone, etc.  It doesn’t matter if your child is watching an educational movie (like Baby Einstein) or playing a game, screen time is screen time. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that children under the age of 2 years should be given NO screen time at all.  

Researchers are finding that screen time before the age of 2 years and/or too much screen time after 2 years of age can lead to all sorts of developmental and physical delays and problems.  What’s more, any time that your child spends in front of a screen is time that could be spent on person-to-person interactions, which is how young children learn best.  If your child is already delayed in his communication, screen time could be making it worse.  Eliminate screen time now and see if his communication improves as a result!

3. Engage in Self-Talk

One strategy you can use at home that has been shown to help late talkers is called self-talk.  This strategy involves describing what you’re doing while you’re doing it.  Basically, you should narrate your life out loud while your child is nearby to hear.  Here’s the catch though, you need to be using sentences that are the same length or slightly longer than the sentences that your child is using.  Think about something your child says to you.  Does he use a big long sentence to thoroughly explain his thought or need?  I’m guessing that if that was the case, you wouldn’t be reading this article.  No, your child probably says one single word or maybe two words together, like “cookie” or “my cookie” if he says anything at all.  If that’s the case, then most of what you say to your child should be in one or two-word sentences.  If your child isn’t talking at all yet, you should be using mostly one-word sentences (i.e., one word at a time).  So, talk about what you’re doing using sentences that are the same length or slightly longer than your child’s utterances.  Here’s an example of how you should sound if your child uses mostly one-word sentences:

“Ball.  Mommy ball.  Throw.  Throw ball.  Catch.  Ball.  Yay!  Fun!  Ball fun!  Like.  Like ball.  Mommy like.  Ball.”

Get the idea?  Talk about what you’re doing, what you see, what you’re holding, how you’re feeling, or anything else that comes to mind.  Just talk!  This will provide your child with tons of great models of single words and two-word combinations that your child can use on his own when he’s ready.  At this point, you don’t need to be forcing him to say these things back to you.  You just want to expose him to a variety of words over and over again.  These children learn through repetition so the more they hear a word, the more likely they are to learn it.

4. Engage in Parallel-Talk

Parallel-talk is similar to self-talk but instead of talking about what you’re doing, seeing, or feeling, you will talk about what your child is doing, seeing, or feeling.  Follow your child around while she is playing or engaged in something.  Talk about what she is playing with.  Talk about what she is looking at.  Take a guess at what she is feeling.  Just make sure that you continue to use phrases that are the same length or slightly longer than those she is using.    Keep doing this around your child so that she hears lots of great words that she can use later when she’s ready.  While you’re letting your child take the lead, take the time to get interested in whatever she’s interested in.  She will be more likely to engage with you if she thinks that you enjoy the things she loves.  Even if that thing seems very simple or boring, get down and play with her and show her your excitement.  That will help establish a trusting, caring relationship that will make your child want to open up to you.

5. Use Expansions

When using expansions, you will want to repeat back everything your child says but add one word to it.  For example, if your child says “cookie”, you will say “want cookie”, “eat cookie”, or “my cookie”.  Just take a guess at what you think your child is trying to say and add an extra word to it to expand the message.  If your child isn’t speaking yet, use a single word to label your child’s gestures.  For example, if she points to a cookie, you could say “cookie” or “eat”.  If she hands you something that she can’t get open, you could say “open” or “help”.  Or, if your child throws a tantrum on the ground, you could say “mad”.  This is once again designed to help your child hear words that she can be using later on once she’s learned them. 

6. Use Sign Language

Researchers have found that providing a child with an alternative means of communicating can actually increase spoken language development as well!  For that reason, it can be helpful to expose your child to some American Sign Language (ASL).  I recommend that you start by learning 10-20 signs for common words that you say around your child.  Choose words that you think your child may want to say to you, such as his favorite toys or foods, or actions that will get some of his needs met like “help” and “stop”.  Look up the ASL signs for those words online (one of my favorite sources is www.ASLPro.com) and learn how to do them.  Then, whenever one of those words comes up in your self-talk, parallel talk, or expansions, sign the word as you say it.  By using the sign along with saying the word out loud, you’re giving your child twice as many opportunities to understand the word.  Keep doing this enough and your child will learn those words more quickly.  Once you’ve mastered those signs, start learning new ones and add those in as well.  If your child begins to use sign language to communicate with you, accept it as if your child had just spoken the word out loud.  At first, you just want to reinforce that your child is communicating with you, we don’t care how.  You can always work on the talking part later (and chances are that it will follow anyway).

7. Do Activities Focused Around One Vocabulary Word

Try setting up activities with your child that will show him how to use a single new word.  For example, if you want your child to learn to use the word “open”, get a bunch of containers with lids and put a small piece of your child’s favorite food inside each one (blueberries work great for this).  Then, close all the lids and say “open” every time you open one for your child.  The point is for your child to hear the word spoken (and signed if you want!) many times throughout the activity.  Then, you want to provide situations that would tempt your child to say the word as well.  For example, if you have containers with very tight lids that your child can’t open, he would be tempted to say the word “open” to ask you to open it.  If he tries to hand one to you for help, wait for a moment to see if he will say it.  If not, go ahead and say the word and open it for him.  You don’t want him to become frustrated, but you do want to give him an opportunity to say the word.

Where Can I Find More Information?

I hope you find these seven ideas helpful for your late talker.  If you use these strategies and activities consistently, you should see progress in your child’s communication.  But remember, this takes time.  Be consistent and keep at it for your child’s sake and don’t hesitate to ask a speech therapist for more help. 

You can also find more information about these steps along with lesson plans for vocabulary activities in my e-book: Jump Start Your Late Talker

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Carrie Clark is a speech-language pathologist in Columbia, Missouri who runs a private practice as well as a world-wide website at www.SpeechAndLanguageKids.com.  Carrie enjoys helping families find ways to improve communication with their child at home and she loves connecting with other professionals who work with children with speech and language delays.  She also enjoys spending time with her own family, including a beautiful baby boy!






01 July 2014 15:51
by Carrie Clark, CCC-SLP