Your child just turned three years old and you finally had a social get-together with friends and family.  No doubt this was a big deal for your child as during the pandemic your child celebrated not one, but potentially two birthdays via Zoom or Teams!  Grandparents are finally able to see their grand child for longer than 15 minutes and friends can finally bring over their growing toddler. What should you expect? Well 20 years ago you would have expected a loud event, with lots of screaming, laughing, group play, commenting, asking questions, and generally not a moment of silence!

But what about now? Are expectations regarding children’s language and play skills the same, even though the world isn’t the same?  The professional data says yes. Going back 100 years, professionals such as speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, play therapists, pediatricians and psychologists began the challenge of compiling consistent milestones for children’s development regarding gross motor movement, fine motor movement and language skills.  There are seemingly neurological windows when the brain is ready to develop certain skills such as those necessary to communicate feelings, thoughts and questions.  

Developmentally children tend to mature in similar steps, somewhat like a ladder.  While we’ve all heard the story of Einstein not talking much until he was five, that is far from the norm.  Most often, the saying you must walk before you run turns out to be true. This saying applies to most milestones.  In regards to communication, what should we expect for three- or four-year-olds?  First you must know that there are two very different categories of language. Those categories are Receptive Language (the ability to understand concepts and language) and Expressive Language (the ability to use concepts and language). When combined you get a Total Language Ability.  To fully use novel vocabulary you generally need to know what it means first!   It’s thought to take nearly 5,000 auditory prompts in context of the item before there is consistent and full demonstration of knowledge. Imagine you said the word doggie, 5,000 separate times while in the presence or visual field of a dog, that’s when you can expect your child to know the word dog.

With Receptive Language Skills, as a speech language pathologist, I am looking for a 3-year-old to understand a large amount of what is being spoken such as the ability to follow two-step directions (i.e., please get the cup and put an ice cube in it), a child who engages in symbolic play (i.e., a wooden block can be a boat or a cell phone), understands the use of common household objects and understands special concepts such as in, on, off, and under. 

In Expressive Language Skills I look for consistent novel vocabulary, a repertoire of 500 or more words, consistent 3-4 word utterances such as “Daddy help roll”, the ability to name common household objects/body parts or clothing, answers WH questions (these are where, why, what and how questions) such as “What does a dog say?”, overall intelligibility of 80% with unfamiliar listeners, and emerging skills with grammatical markers such as plurals, possessives and -ing.   

So what happens if it’s quiet at the birthday party with very few true words being spoken?  It might be time to start seeking professional input regarding language development. A speech language pathologist is the professional who can fully evaluate and address any concerns regarding your child’s speech skills.  Sometimes reassurance is all that is needed;  other times several sessions and then the parent’s following up at home with a check in; and still other times weekly therapy for a number of months is needed.  

If you think speech language therapy may be needed for your child, please contact us. 

Amanda Schilling, MS, CF-SLP is participating in a Clinical Fellowship to obtain the Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Susan Klemm, MS, OTR/L is founder and owner of Carolina Kinder Development.