Oral Language Disorders: 10 Early Signs and What You Can Do as a Parent

Oral Language Disorders: 10 Early Signs and What You Can Do as a Parent

Children are born ready to learn a language. The period between birth to four years is a fundamental time for the development of language and is, thus, an equally critical stage for the detection of communication disorders. Learning a language takes time. Each child develops at their own rate, but many skills are acquired during a given age range, such as between twelve and eighteen months. A child who takes longer to develop a skill may need additional support. It is important for parents to understand developmental milestones in order to identify early signs of delay and to provide the necessary support.

What is Language?

Language is made up of the words used to share ideas and accomplish goals. Language has four main components: speaking, understanding, reading, and writing. A child with a language disorder may have difficulty in one or more of these areas. Oral language specifically includes receptive and expressive skills.

What are Oral Language Disorders in Children?

There are two types of oral language disorders: receptive and expressive. A receptive oral language disorder includes difficulty understanding words that are heard or read. An expressive oral language disorder includes difficulty speaking with others and expressing one’s thoughts and feelings. A child may have both disorders at the same time. Such disorders are typically diagnosed in children between the ages of three and five, but there are signs that may be helpful in detecting language disorders and providing early intervention at an earlier age.

10 Early Signs of an Oral Language Disorder

  1. Child does not smile or interact with others (birth and older)
  2. Child does not babble (4 – 7 months)
  3. Child makes only a few sounds or gestures, like pointing (7 – 12 months)
  4. Child does not understand what others say (7 months – 2 years)
  5. Child says only a few words (12 – 18 months)
  6. Child’s words are not easily understood (18 months – 2 years)
  7. Child does not put words together to make sentences (18 months – 3 years)
  8. Child says fewer than 50 words (2 years)
  9. Child has trouble playing and talking with other children (2 – 3 years)
  10. Child has trouble with early reading and writing skills including looking at pictures in a book, pointing at or touching pictures in books, turning pages in books, and drawing (2.5 – 3 years)

What Causes Oral Language Disorders?

In many cases, the cause of oral language disorders is unknown. A child’s oral language disorder is often linked to a health problem or disability. There are many risk factors for an oral language disorder including, but not limited to, a family history, premature birth, low birth weight, hearing loss, Autism, genetic disorders, brain injury, poor nutrition, and failure to thrive.

What Can You Do as a Parent?

  • Create a language rich environment in your home. (Check out this list of 10 easy ways to do so.)
  • Listen and respond to what your child says.
  • Speak in shorter phrases using a slower rate of speech and pausing longer between sentences.
  • Allow your child time to process your words; count to ten.
  • Talk, read, and play with your child.
  • Talk with your child in the language which you are most comfortable speaking.
  • Teach your child to speak another language, if you speak one.
  • Sportscast what you and your child are doing during the day.
  • Use an enriched and varied vocabulary with your child.
  • Use longer sentences as your child gets older.
  • Use visual aids and motor skills whenever possible.
  • Provide experiences where your child can play with other children.
  • Use a lot of repetition.
  • Label people, places, and things in the child’s environment including family members, articles of clothing, household items, and body parts. As the child gets older, name community helpers and world regions.
  • Additional vocabulary can be provided by naming animals, plants, and food. Picture books can be helpful with this.

According to Joyce Pickering, executive director emerita at AMS-member school Shelton School and Evaluation Center, you can help promote your child’s oral language development by using the following as a guide for asking and answering questions.

If you ask an open-ended question and your child does not respond after ten seconds:

  1. Ask the question again and give two choices. If that does not work, then…
  2. Ask a yes/no question. If that does not work, then…
  3. Model the response by answering what the child should say.

Most importantly, if you have concerns about your child’s language development or if your child has a delay in talking, a limited vocabulary, or articulation difficulties, consult with their pediatrician as you may be eligible for free or low-cost services. A healthcare provider will likely ask you questions about your child’s language use, review your child’s medical history, and perform a physical exam.

You may then be referred to a language development specialist like a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who will conduct a comprehensive evaluation that includes discussing your child’s language use, reviewing your child’s medical history, and observing your child during play. The SLP can determine through this evaluation if services are needed or if the difficulties you may be seeing are within normal limits. The SLP may request a follow-up evaluation in six months to review the child’s progress. Research has shown that early intervention is crucial in improving later outcomes for children; getting help for your child right away is better than waiting as oral language development is the foundation of later development in written language skills including reading, writing, and spelling.

Language and perceptions change rapidly. AMS will continue to collaborate with disabled and neurodivergent people in order to educate its staff and members on the most affirming language keeping disability justice in mind. Please refer to the National Center on Disability and Journalism as a resource for inclusive language.

Get More Out of the Article
AMS members receive unlimited access to our on demand library of professional development. Learn more about this subject by accessing our 2-part video series on Oral Language Development for Typical and At Risk Children.

Watch Part 1

About the Author

Heather White

Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori coach and consultant, content creator, and educator for adult learners, as well as a moderator and manager for the Montessori at Home (0 – 3 years) Facebook group. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, in-home caregiver, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a school psychologist intern. She is AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I) and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP). Contact her at hpratt@stetson.edu.

Interested in writing a guest post for our blog? Let us know!

The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.

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