I’ve heard this question a million times-from friends, as a school-based Speech-Language Pathologist, and from others who learned what my profession was.
Most parents (and teachers) focus on speech articulation (the way a child forms sounds when talking). This is probably where the focus is, because it’s obvious-most parents and teachers hear their child/student speak often. Articulation disorders and delays can have many impacts on children. Socially, they may become embarrassed about their speech and refuse to talk. In their school setting, reading and writing can become impacted, as a child may have difficulty correctly sounding out and spelling words.
Click here for a checklist of developmental norms: Speech and Language Developmental Milestones
Equally important are a child’s language skills.
Receptive language: understanding others
Expressive Language: sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings completely
Language delays and disorders can hinder many important areas of a child’s development and education. Like an articulation disorder, a language disorder can also impact reading, writing, social skills, and speech. I remember once a teacher asked me to listen to a student. “I just can’t understand him!” she told me. I was prepared to listen to a young child who couldn’t say specific sounds. Instead, I discovered that the child did not have a speech articulation problem. Instead, this child had a language problem, syntax specifically. Syntax is the order and combination of words to form sentences. He said things such as “Him has a folder red.” His speech really did sound bad. I explained to his teacher that what she is hearing is actually most likely a language disorder and not an articulation disorder. After I received a blank stare, I realized what little is known about language impairments. It’s almost like a ‘silent disorder’ that is very common, yet difficult to educate others on.
So many times I’ve heard “He just can’t follow directions!” and “She just looks at me when I give her directions.” Upon hearing this from parents and teachers, I would respond that I would need to complete a speech-language evaluation to rule in or rule out a language disorder. It was almost always quickly followed up with “But why? There are no speech concerns!”
I am certainly not saying that all students who have difficulty following directions or have difficulty expressing themselves are language impaired. Many of these children go through testing and it is revealed that there are other areas of deficit, such as learning disabilities or concerns with attention/ADHD, but many of them do end up being diagnosed with a language disorder.
So, what can you do for your child if you have speech-language concerns?
Most parents learn their child’s speech patterns and are able to understand them. I would recommend asking someone who isn’t around your child frequently, but someone your child feels comfortable talking to (grandparent, aunt, cousin), to see that they think. If they express concern, contacting a Speech-Language Pathologist would most likely be the next step. For a list of SLP’s in your area, start your search here: Find a Professional: Online Directory of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Programs
It is important to remember that every child develops at different rates. One child may be able to correctly produce all sounds by age 4 with appropriate language skills, while other children don’t master sounds such as /R/ and ‘Th’ until the age of 7, which is developmentally appropriate.
Below are 2 great links to ASHA’s website that concisely explain speech and language disorders and differences.