Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development
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Language Development in English
Section Editor:
Judith Johnston, Ph.D (jrj@audiospeech.ubc.ca)
School of Audiology and Speech Sciences
University of British Columbia
208-5804 Fairview Avenue, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3
Printable Version:
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Key Messages
What do we know?

Although there are differences in the rate of learning language, most children will learn to speak English in the following stages:
  1. Babbling (i.e., combining consonants and vowels such as in ‘baba,’ 7-10 months)
  2. Intentional communication (i.e., using eye gaze, gesture, and babble for communicative purposes, 8 months)
  3. First words (90% of children say their first word by 14 months)
  4. Short word combinations (i.e., 2- or 3-word combinations, such as “Mummy up” or “More juice please,” 16-30 months)
  5. Noun and verb inflections (i.e., using ‘s’ to indicate plural in ‘cat-s’ or ‘ed’ in ‘play-ed’ to indicate past tense, 16-30 months)
  6. Complex sentences (i.e., among the earliest complex sentences are multiple parts  connected with and, because, so, when and if; 28-45 months)
  7. Including the listener in conversation (i.e., turn-taking exchanges, 36-72 months)
  8. Telling simple action oriented stories (narrative abilities predict later language growth, reading comprehension, and other aspects of school success, 6-7 years)
Parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals can use this information to track the progress of a child in their care.Language assessment is an important tool and has three main goals:
  1. to determine if a child is meeting developmental milestones outlined above;
  2. to describe a child’s current speech and language skills to individualize language therapy and school programming; and
  3. to measure progress of an individual child as a result of language intervention.
There are two main types of language assessment:
  1. language tests (traditional tools for assessment) – using standardized measures
  2. language sample analysis (an alternative to tests) – a child’s spontaneous conversation is recorded, transcribed, and analyzed. 
When assessing a child, a tester should use the full array of measures and understand their appropriate contexts of use. The results of assessment are important as they help to choose the most appropriate therapy strategies for a child.
A variety of intervention methods are available for at-risk children. Some therapy programs are carried out by a parent, while others are administered by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or related professional. Current research suggests that there is significant benefit to parent-administered programs for short-term progress; however, little is known about the effectiveness of these programs in the long term. Some approaches, particularly ones in which a child’s treatment plan is based upon carrying out the treatment in the child’s mainstream environment (i.e., home, school, etc.), may be most useful for children who have some words but in limited combinations. When parents or caregivers are assigned the task of carrying out the prescribed intervention, the child must be carefully monitored to ensure that the program is appropriately followed, and adjustments are provided where necessary.
What can be done?
Parents and Educators
  1. creating communicating opportunities (e.g., keeping food out of reach, changing plotlines in books to have the child correct it, requesting communication from the child);
  2. following the child's lead by providing activities of interest to child; and
  3. building and establishing social routines (e.g., rituals such as peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake).