Speech and Language Development

FInd a Speech Therapist Using TherapyfindR

A Directory and Community of Speech-Language Pathologists

Speech and Language Development

By Lauren Krieger Witthuhn, M.S., CCC-SLP


Speech/language pathologists are commonly asked to describe speech/language therapy, as well as speech and language development in young children.  The best way to understand speech and language development is to first appreciate that speech is the physical aspect of communication, whereas language is the cognitive basis of communication.

Speech is the muscle-based actions that produce the actual sounds of speech (speech phonemes) that create syllables, words, phrases, sentences and dialogue.  The muscles involved in creating speech sounds are sometimes referred to as the oral motor components of speech.  These include muscles around the jaw, lips, chin, and cheeks, as well as in muscles in the tongue.  These oral motor muscles articulate speech sounds, as well as perform tasks including eating, drinking, blowing bubbles, smiling and frowning.

Language is the mental representation of concepts.  Language is then divided into three major categories: Receptive, Expressive and Pragmatic.

Receptive Language is our understanding of what others say to us, or being able to “decode” the verbal information.  Examples include:

Identifying vocabulary: “Find the biggest strawberry”, “Go stand in front of your sister”

Following directions: “Find your shoes and put them on”, “Pick a book and then sit down”

Understanding questions: “What do you want to eat?” “Why do you want that one?” “Where is it?”


Expressive Language is what we do when we talk and how we express ourselves verbally.  This is how we relay information, desires or needs. Examples include:

Conveying wants and needs: “I want the red one” “I need a tissue” “I’m thirsty”

Commenting, describing, answering questions and observing: “That’s a big bubble!” “I like the pink shirt” “It has two eyes!”

Requesting information and asking questions: “Where are my shoes?” “When do we leave” “Can you say that again?”


Pragmatic Language is how we use language we comprehend and can use, and how we transfer ideas within different environments.  Pragmatics involves how we use language, change language and follow rules for communication. Examples of verbal pragmatic language include:

Labeling: “I see a duck”

Requesting: “I want a duck”

Protesting: “No duck”

Directing: “Put the duck in the water”

Asking questions: “Where is the duck?”

Answering questions: “The duck is over there!”

Commenting/Describing: “The duck went splash!”


Nonverbal examples of pragmatic language include:

Eye contact

Joint attention

Use of gestures, such as pointing

Turn-taking during play and in conversation

Body awareness during play and in conversation


Tips to develop language during play with your child

1.Be silly and have FUN!!

Remember, your ultimate goal is to have a shared and fun experience with your child.

2.Focus on one toy at a time

Decide on one toy to focus on for 5-10 minutes.  This will increase your child’s attention and focus, and prevent them from becoming overwhelmed.  Keep some toys in a bag or a box so that your child needs to ask you for them.  For example, when playing with a puzzle, hold onto the pieces, and reveal them one at a time.  This is a wonderful way to engage, request and comment.

3.Keep it simple!

Many toys come with too many pieces, and it can be challenging to stay organized.  Don’t hesitate to simplify the toy or game! For example, try playing with one to three cars and two toy people rather than the entire box.  For bath time, choose two or three favorite toys rather than a whole collection.  Choose key items from a house set, such as a bed, table, people and play on the floor without the house.

4.Incorporate turn-taking activities

Working on turn-taking using younger toys can be helpful in building your child’s confidence and patience.  Simple board games can promote rule-bound turn-taking

5.Use simple, concrete language to narrate and model

Simplify your language, such as “Wow, the boy is going up. Up, up, up!” or “first the girl goes, then you go down the slide!”. Refrain from asking too many questions, and try to comment on your and your child’s actions to promote better conversations.

6.Follow your child’s lead

Use play activities you know your child likes and are motivating.  If your child is not fully engage, don’t be afraid to choose a different activity.  It’s ok to take a break and try again another time.  Play should be a positive experience for everyone involved!

Need help answering some more of your questions? Try TherapyfindR Concierge

17 April 2013 18:46
by Lauren Krieger Witthuhn, M.S., CCC-SLP