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Further information

How speech and language develop

It isn't always easy to tell if a child has a speech or language difficulty.  If you're concerned and your child is not yet at school, contact your health visitor for advice.

If your child goes to nursery or preschool, talk to staff there – they will know how your child's speech is compared to others the same age. If your child is already at school, talk to their teacher or the school nurse.  Any of these people can help you get a referral to speech and language therapy if necessary.

Most importantly, if your instinct tells you there is a problem, don't leave it.  It can take a while to get "into the system" so the earlier you seek advice, the better.

Children's speech and language generally develops as follows:

From 6 to 12 months

From 6 to 12 months, most children will learn to:

  • Listen when you speak to them
  • Make eye contact with others
  • String together different babbling sounds like dada, baba
  • Start to understand simple words like "bye-bye" and "up"

Tips to help them along:

  • Talk to them while doing everyday activities and make eye contact when speaking
  • Copy your child's babbling sounds
  • Use actions and gestures with words like waving bye bye
  • Starting to drink from a cup is an important step in helping a child to develop mature mouth muscles. Encourage your child to start trying a cup at 6 months of age. It may take quite some time and lots of spillages but just put a small amount of liquid in and try different sorts of cups.

Items for the toy box:

  • Rattles with different sounds
  • Stacking rings and beakers
  • Plastic mirror

Everyday items for play:

  • Washing up bottles filled with different materials such as rice
  • Empty clean containers to explore

From 12 to 18 months

From 12-18 months, most children will learn to:

  • Play games like peek-a-boo, clap hands and pat-a-cake
  • Start to understand a few simple words like "car", "dog", and "drink"
  • Start to understand simple instructions like "give me" or "kiss daddy"
  • Use some single words
  • Use gestures or pointing to get what they want

Tips to help them along:

  • Sing nursery rhymes, especially those with actions
  • Name familiar objects with your child
  • If your child is pointing to something tell them what it is
  • Messy play with food and non-food items can help to reduce their sensitivity to textures and encourage them to eat a wider range of foods which strengthens and co-ordinates their mouth muscles

Items for the toybox:

  • Shape sorters
  • Toy telephone
  • Dishes with pretend food
  • Push/pull toys

Everyday items for play:

  • Pots and pans
  • Large wooden spoons and spatulas
  • Big boxes they can sit in or crawl through

From 18 months to 2 years

From 18 months – 2 years, most children will learn to:

  • Understand simple questions like "Where are your shoes?"
  • Use more single words, usually about 20-50
  • Use a small number of sounds – usually p, b, m, w.  They may miss the end off words

Tips to help them along:

  • Offer them simple choices such as "Do you want an apple or a banana?"
  • Use books and talk about the pictures
  • Do not correct unclear words, just repeat them back correctly

Items for the toybox:

  • Play dough and cutters
  • Picture dominoes
  • Shopping bag and empty boxes/containers

Everyday items for play:

  • Old newspapers and magazines - crumple them, tear them and throw them
  • Anything you can fill and spill
  • Boxes of different sizes to stack, build with, crush etc.

From 2 to 3 years

From 2-3 years, most children will learn to:

  • Listen to simple stories with pictures
  • Understand longer instructions like "Make teddy jump" or "Where is Mummy's bag?"
  • Use up to 300 words and put words together in 2-3 word sentences
  • Use more sounds and longer words but may have problems with "sh", "ch" and "r"

Tips to help them along:

  • Help them to make longer sentences – if they say "Teddy's tummy" try saying "Tickle teddy’s tummy"
  • Let your child help with everyday activities and talk to them while you are doing this
  • Do not correct your child's words or make them repeat it.  Simply say it again correctly

Items for the toy box:

  • Tricycle
  • Play people and vehicles
  • Pretend cooker

Everyday items for play:

  • Old clothes for dressing up
  • Make feely boxes – shoes boxes containing different items like a stuffed sock or a hairbrush.  Tape up the box then cut a hole and guess what's inside

From 3 to 4 years

From 3 to 4 years, most children will learn to:

  • Listen to longer stories
  • Understand and use colours and numbers
  • Use 2 or more sentences together
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Have difficulties with sounds such as "w", "Th" and "j"

Tips to help them along:

  • Set aside a special time to talk about their day, like at bedtime
  • Talk about and play games about opposites like on/off, hot/cold
  • Talk about time – yesterday, later, after tea

Items for the toybox:

  • Simple card games such as snap
  • Floor mats/roads
  • Clay, finger paints, felt tip pens

Everyday items for play:

  • Do lots of junk modelling
  • Play hide and seek with people and objects
  • Play with things that are opposites like a hot water bottle and some ice cubes

Speech and language difficulties

Some children have another condition or disability that affects their speech or language, such as a hearing impairment, Down's syndrome or cerebral palsy.  However, most children who need extra help with speech and language are otherwise developing normally.

Speech and language difficulties may relate to one or a combination of the following:

  • Your child's understanding of language – your child may have difficulty understanding words, sentence or instructions.

  • Your child's ability to use language to express themselves – your child may have good understanding of what other people say, but find it difficult to express their own ideas, wants or feelings.

  • Speech sound difficulties - these can make it hard for people to understand your child.  Some sounds are harder for children to say than others.  For example many 2-3 year olds have difficulties with f, sh and s. Speech sounds are only seen as a difficulty if they continue beyond the expected age.

A common distinction that is often made is between "delay" and "disorder".  Delay is the most common type of speech and language difficulty and means that a pattern of development is recognisable but would usually be found in a younger child.

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