How Speech Develops

Children begin communicating early and their speech and language skills grow as they reach different ages and milestones.

Parents are often the first to know if there are concerns with their child’s speech and communication skills. Don’t wait to get help! It’s never too soon—and your child is never too young—to be seen by a speech-language pathologist.

Speech and Language Checklist

Our speech and language checklist shows common speech and language behaviour at different ages. Look at the checklist that is closest to your child’s age right now, but do not use an age that is older than your child’s age. For example, if your child is 13 months old, look at the 12 months checklist.

By 6 months - Does your child…?

  • Make several vowel sounds (e.g. ooh, aah, ee)
  • Imitate some sounds (like coughing)
  • Make silly sounds with their mouth like “raspberries”
  • Reach for, hold and put toys in their mouth
  • Cry to an angry voice and smile to a pleasant voice
  • Enjoy games like “peek-a-boo” and tickling
  • Turn to you when you speak

By 9 months - Does your child…?

  • Use sounds or gestures to let you know what they want (e.g. reaches out to be picked up)
  • Babble (e.g. “mamama” or “bababa”)
  • Take turns with you making sounds back and forth
  • Use a sing-song voice when playing alone
  • Respond to their own name
  • Understand “no”

By 12 months - Does your child…?

  • Make many different sounds together, as though really talking
  • Imitate or use sounds you make (e.g. “Wee!” or “Oh-oh”)
  • Imitate or use gestures (e.g. waving “bye-bye”)
  • Say 3 to 5 words (e.g. “mama,” “dada,” or “doo” for “juice”)
  • Follow simple instructions (e.g. “sit down” or “come here”)
  • Understand some words that go with gestures (e.g. “give me” as you extend your hand)
  • Bring you toys to show you and/or to play with

By 18 months - Does your child…?

  • Use 20 or more words (e.g. “no,” “ba” for “ball,” “more,” “up”)
  • Use more new words every week
  • Begin to put 2 words together (e.g. “What’s that?” “No juice”)
  • Answer “What’s this?” questions with true words like “car,” “dog,” or “book”
  • Make these sounds: p, b, m, n, d, g
  • Understand more words than they can say
  • Follow simple instructions without gestures (e.g. “Show me the book” and “Give me the shoe”)
  • Point to 3 body parts (e.g. eyes, nose, and mouth)
  • Use toys for pretend play (e.g. uses a block as a car)

By 24 months - Does your child…?

  • Use 150 to 300 different words.
  • Use 2 pronouns (e.g. I, me, you)
  • Use two-word combinations most of the time. (e.g. “me go” or “more cookie” or “Daddy car”)
  • Speak clearly enough to be understood about 2/3 of the time
  • Point to familiar actions/activities in pictures (e.g. sleeping, eating)
  • Follow directions to put objects “on,” “off” or “in”
  • Choose among common objects when asked, like “Find the comb”

By 30 months - Does your child…?

  • Use at least 450 different words
  • Begin to use verbs with “ing” endings (e.g. eating)
  • Say their first name when asked
  • Answer questions like “Where is Teddy?” and “What is Mommy doing?”
  • Use sentences of up to 3 words combining nouns and verbs (e.g. “Daddy go car.”)
  • Put sounds at the beginning of most words
  • Understand concepts such as “big” and “little”
  • Begin to point to objects from a group by their function and parts (e.g. “Which one has wheels?” “Which one can we eat?”)

By 3 years - Does your child…?

  • Use 900 to 1000 different words.
  • Use sentences of 3 or more words
  • Ask questions like “Who?” “Where?” and “Why?”
  • Talk about things that happened in the past
  • Tell a simple story
  • Speak clearly enough for people outside the family to understand most of the time
  • Put sounds at the beginning and end of most words
  • Follow two-part directions without gestures (e.g. “Go to the kitchen and get your hat”)

By 4 years - Does your child…?

  • Use 4 to 5 word sentences that have adult-like grammar
  • Tell a story that is easy to follow, with a beginning middle and end
  • Predict what might happen next in a new story
  • Give first and last name, gender and age
  • Use most consonant and vowel sounds correctly
  • Speak clearly enough to be understood by people outside the family all of the time
  • Follow three-part directions (e.g. “Get your boots, put them on, and wait at the door”)

If you leave one or more check boxes blank, or if you are worried about your child’s speech and language skills, call Here4Kids at 1-844-4KIDS-11 (1-844-454-3711). A service coordinator will talk to you about your child’s speech and language skills. *Checklist adapted with permission from tykeTalk.

For information on speech and language milestones by age in other languages, visit the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.

Age-based strategies

Ages 6mos – 18 mos: Being in “tune” with your child’s communication

As caregivers, we need to be in “tune” with our child’s communication. To do so, we need to be mindful of our:

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes: You should be at your child’s physical level. This helps you see what they’re interested in.

Eyes: You should be observing and watching what your child is doing with their body, hands and mouth.

Ears: You should be listening to what your child is saying (e.g., sounds and/or words).

Mouth: You should help build a back-and-forth turn taking by giving your child an opportunity to communicate and then waiting for them to communicate (about 5 seconds is great!).

Nose: You should be facing in the direction of your child and looking at their face and body movements. This also lets your child see your face, lips and mouth. By looking expectantly at your child, they will be encouraged to communicate with you.

Other things you can do at this age:

  • Model simple single words, sounds and environmental noises (e.g., car vroom)
  • Imitate your child’s sounds and actions during play
  • Use routines such as snack time, getting dressed and book reading to help encourage turn taking
  • Provide your child with simple, concrete choices (provide two choices at a time). For example: apple or banana
  • Model and demonstrate simple gestures that are common in your culture, such as waving “bye”, along with the word
  • Repeat the words often within and across activities. Try and wait 5 seconds between repetitions.
  • Interpret for your child. If your child points to the cookie jar, you can point and say “cookie”

Ages 18 months – 2 years: Using communication temptations

Here are some ways you can encourage continued communication skills with your toddler:

  • Offer a choice: For example, at snack time, ask your child if he/she wants “apple” or “banana” while holding up each choice
  • Keep things out-of-reach (but your child can still see): For example try putting things on high shelves, clear containers or clear storage bags
  • Use items that are hard to operate on their own (e.g., jar lid, bubbles, wind-up toy)
  • Creative silliness: do something unexpected, such as “forget” to give your child an item he needs (e.g., a spoon, one piece of a puzzle, a sock).
  • Fill-in-the-blank: Allow your child a chance to “finish” a word within an activity
  • Bit-by-bit: Provide items in small quantities (e.g., pieces of a banana instead of the entire banana)

The most important part of all these strategies is that you provide an opportunity and then WAIT (about 5 seconds is great). You can model a word or phrase (e.g., go!) and then wait. See if your child responds or copies back that word. If your child doesn’t say a word/phrase after you’ve waited, say it and continue with the activity or routine.

Join in on your child’s play; engage with what they’re already interested in (as long as it’s safe and appropriate in your home).

2 years – 2.5 years: Increasing language skills

By 2 years of age, children are starting to use more words and start to combine those words (usually two word phrases such as “eat cookie or hi mama”). To encourage continued language development, here are some strategies you can try at home:

  • Match + 1: Add a word to whatever word(s) your child is already using at home. For example:
    • Child: Car!
    • Caregiver: Go car!
  • Model words and comment while your child is playing. For example, if your child is playing with cars, talk about what they are doing or seeing. Keep language simple. A good rule of thumb is to use one word more than your child is using typically. So, if your child usually uses one-word phrases, you can use two words.
  • Use a variety of words including:
    • Action words: run, jump, walk, eat, drink, splash, go, come
    • Objects: puppy, pig, mommy, bottle, food, shoe, car, tree
    • Describing words: big, little, soft, hard, happy, sad, tired, one, all
    • Position words:  in, out, on, off, up, down
  • Reduce the number of questions you ask. Consider making five comments for every one question.
  • If your child is having difficulty following simple 2-step directions, split up the direction or add a visual cue (e.g., pointing). This works well when your child is engaged in the task (i.e., not distracted by other toys or activities).

2.5-3 years: Learning the rules of language

Your child may be using more words and starting to build phrases together. If your child makes an error, you can provide a good model:

  • Child: My tar falled down!
  • Caregiver: Uh oh, the car fell down! Let’s pick it up.

Avoid correcting your child.

Use different, specific words to increase vocabulary, such as different describing words (e.g., big, huge, giant).

Use pretend play to act out familiar routines (e.g., cooking, getting a stuffed animal ready for bed) and comment about what you and your child are doing/seeing.

3 years + : Using literacy and play to support language

Your child may be showing an increasing interest in books and imaginative pretend play. Encourage continued language development by:

  • Reading books with your child. It’s never too early. You can draw attention to the words, sounds and letters that are made.
  • Example: The cat in the hat. Hey, cat and hat rhyme – they sound the same at the end.
  • Example: c-c-c-crack! Did you hear that /k/ sound?

You can also draw attention to the story to help build communication skills.

For instance, help your child by identifying the sequence of steps. Example: First the dragon was scared, then he took a magic pill and he wasn’t scared anymore.

Ask questions about the book that goes beyond what you’re reading.

  • Oh no, this dragon looks tired. Why does he look tired?
  • Hey, he’s eating playdoh. Do you think that tastes good? How do you know?

Continue to support language skills by encouraging continued multi-step pretend play. Children in this stage may play with toys and complete actions that they’ve never experienced themselves before but are familiar with (e.g., having a tea party, being a doctor). Play is a child’s job!

Let’s Talk! Tips for Building your Child’s Speech and Language Skills

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit has developed the Let’s Talk video series, which explores the milestones associated with each age from 0 to 5 years.

Visit Language Express for ideas for simple things parents can do to encourage language development at different stages.