Little speakers

Early identification of speech and language
delays is crucial to a child’s life success, expert says

Speech and language milestones are important and parents and caregivers need to pay careful attention to whether a child is meeting them or not.

“Talk by 2 is a specific message that we would like to bring out to the community,” says Roxane Bélanger, a speech-language pathologist who has been with First Words in Ottawa since 1998.

The First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program of Ottawa is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services and provides free services to families. It focuses on the prevention, early identification and treatment of speech and language issues in young children from birth to their eligibility for senior kindergarten. First Words’ partners in service delivery include CHEO and the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre.

Talk by 2 and Beyond! is an early identification and prevention strategy that is founded on recent pediatric studies. Early identification of speech and language delays is considered “the key to a child’s best start in life and is crucial to their life success.”

Children at age two should be “little speakers,” says Bélanger. She explains that adults tend to underestimate how much children at this age understand and how many words and phrases they should be using.

Mary-Jane Slingerland, a private speech-language pathologist with 30 years of experience with preschoolers, agrees with the importance of the strategy, saying “typically developing children speak in phrases and sentences by the age of 24 months. There is a language explosion between 18 and 24 months where children learn a lot of vocabulary. At the age of two years, many are using that vocabulary in sentences and also beginning to use grammar such as using pronouns. It is an important concept to get out into the public… if left without intervention, the child begins school in a disadvantaged spot.
For each year of advancement in grade, the language demands grow significantly.

“Within the past two years, I am seeing more toddlers around the age of 16 months as the word is out about the importance of children talking by age two years. At this young age, my task is to work with parents to teach and provide them with strategies they can use daily to support their child’s development. There are many things you can do with the time you have with your children to facilitate their communication skills,” says Slingerland.

For parents, Bélanger notes the importance of being “constantly in conversation with your child.” She says, “talking throughout the day and during activities will surround a child with words, and words that make sense to the activity.” This promotes speech and language development.

“Boys are always slower to talk. She’s learning two languages at home.” These explanations for speech or language delay might sound familiar, however, the milestones are an average, Bélanger says. “Boy or girl, speaking one language or two languages, born in June or January…if they are not meeting those average milestones, we should start to ask ourselves some questions about that. It’s important that parents continue to use the milestones to guide their judgement,” says Bélanger, who discourages parents from “waiting it out.” She advocates parents to trust their instincts and not hesitate to seek support.

Although the earliest possible intervention is recommended, a child’s speech and language continues to develop after age two. For those with children who have reached their second birthday and are experiencing communication delays, Bélanger says “it’s never too late to access speech and language services.”

The First Words website allows parents to access not only information about the program and “Talk by 2” but also Communication Checkup – an online screening tool that helps parents compare their child’s progress against milestones and provides suggestions on next steps to support the child’s development. Parents will also find links to local resources, key research as well as learning tools and effective language building strategies to help their child.