American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
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Preschool Language Disorders

What are preschool language disorders?

Preschool children (3 to 5 years old) with language disorders may have trouble understanding and talking.

What are some signs or symptoms of preschool language disorders?

Some children have problems with understanding, also called receptive language. They may have trouble:

  • Understanding what gestures mean
  • Following directions
  • Answering questions
  • Identifying objects and pictures
  • Taking turns when talking with others

Some children have problems talking, also called expressive language. They may have trouble:

  • Asking questions
  • Naming objects
  • Using gestures
  • Putting words together into sentences
  • Learning songs and rhymes
  • Using correct pronouns, like "he" or "they"
  • Knowing how to start a conversation and keep it going

Many children have problems with both understanding and talking.

Some children also have trouble with early reading and writing, such as:

  • Holding a book right side up
  • Looking at pictures in a book and turning pages
  • Telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • Naming letters and numbers
  • Learning the alphabet

What if my child speaks more than one language?

A child does not get a language disorder from learning a second language. It won't confuse your child to speak more than one language in the home. Speak to your child in the language that you know best. Children with language disorders will have problems with both languages.

How are preschool language disorders evaluated?

Speech-language pathologists, also called SLPs, usually are part of a team. The team includes you, the child's teacher, and other professionals. The team can see if your child's language skills are at age level. SLPs evaluate children while they play. They want to know:

  • Does your child know what to do with toys?
  • Does your child use pretend play?

For understanding and talking, the SLP will see if your child:

  • Follows directions
  • Names common objects and actions
  • Knows colors, numbers, and letters
  • Follows routines like putting his coat away or sitting during circle time
  • Sings songs or repeats nursery rhymes
  • Gets needs met at home, during play, and at preschool

SLPs will see if your child's speech is easy to understand. They will see how your child uses her lips, tongue, and teeth to make sounds. They will have your child imitate sounds or words.

For early reading and writing, the SLP will see if your child:

  • Looks at and talks about pictures in books
  • Recognizes familiar signs and logos
  • Holds a book correctly and turns the pages
  • Recognizes and writes his or her own name
  • Tries to write letters and numbers

How are preschool language disorders treated?

SLPs can help children with language disorders. They work on language problems found during the evaluation. They work with you, teachers, and other professionals to improve speech and language skills. Good language skills help with learning, behavior, self- esteem, and social skills.

Here are some possible treatment goals:

  • Increase your child's understanding and use of language
  • Teach caregivers, family members, and teachers ways to communicate with your child
  • Help your child use other ways to communicate when needed. This may include simple gestures, picture boards, or computers that say words out loud. This is also called augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC.

What can I do to help?

Here are some language tips:

  • Talk a lot your child. This will help your child learn new words.
  • Read to your child every day.
  • Point out words you see. Point to signs in the grocery store, at school, and outside.
  • Speak to your child in the language you know best.
  • Listen and respond when your child talks.
  • Encourage your child to ask you questions.
  • Give your child time to answer questions.
  • Set limits for watching TV and using electronic media. Use the time for talking and reading together.

Here are more activities for building your child's speech and language skills.

What causes preschool language disorders?

Often the cause of a language disorder in not known. Some causes of preschool language disorders may be:

  • Family history of language disorders
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth-weight
  • Hearing loss
  • Autism
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Syndromes, like Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
  • Stroke
  • Brain injury
  • Tumors
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Poor nutrition
  • Failure to thrive

How common are preschool language disorders?

Information about the incidence and prevalence of preschool language disorders is available in the ASHA report, Communication Facts: Incidence and Prevalence of Communication Disorders and Hearing Loss in Children – 2008 Edition.

What are the types of preschool language disorders?

Problems with understanding are called receptive language disorders. Problems with talking are called expressive language disorders. Children may have problems with both. Sometimes a language disorder is called specific language impairment, or SLI.

Types of preschool language disorders may include problems with:

  • Understanding basic concepts, questions, and directions
  • Learning new words
  • Saying words in the right order
  • Having conversations and telling stories

How effective are treatments for preschool language disorders?

This treatment efficacy summary [PDF] on child language disorders describes research supporting the benefits of speech-language pathology treatment for children with language disorders. It discusses the critical role of the speech-language pathologist and shows how treatment enhances functional communication and quality of life.

Additional Resources

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What do SLPs do when working with individuals with preschool language disorders?

Speech-language pathologists help in a variety of ways when working with preschoolers with language disorders. They work directly with children and their parents, caregivers, and teachers. SLPs help people understand the important connection between the words that we say and our ability to read and write later on. SLPs help children improve their understanding and use of language. They help children:

  • follow directions
  • talk about and ask for things
  • form short sentences and ask and answer questions
  • tell stories and describe pictures and events

They also help children with beginning reading and writing skills. They build children's awareness of written words in books and in the environment

SLPs talk to parents, caregivers, and teachers about ways to help children improve and enhance their language skills. They help parents understand how to work with their children at home and in every day activities.

The Preferred Practice Patterns for the Profession of Speech-Language Pathology includes sections on preschool speech-language and communication assessment (section 13) and preschool speech-language and communication intervention (section 14). These sections describe the typical clinical process followed by a speech-language pathologist in these areas.

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