Childhood Spoken Language Disorders

Your child may show signs of speech and language problems. Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, can help. Visit ASHA ProFind to find a professional in your area.

On this page:

About Childhood Spoken Language Disorders

Sometimes, children can have speech or language problems before they start school and receive early intervention services. At other times, language problems may not appear until children are in school.

If your child has trouble saying sounds clearly, that could be a sign of a speech sound disorder.

Language problems could mean that a child is having trouble learning new words and saying sentences, following directions, or understanding questions. Some children have problems with both expressing themselves and understanding.

Learn more about speech and language development from birth to 5 years old.

Speaking More Than One Language

Many children all over the world learn more than one language. Multilingual children develop language skills just as other children do. You will not confuse your child, cause or worsen speech or language problems, or slow down their learning by using all of your languages with your child.

However, some children do have speech or language problems that show up in all languages. Talk with a speech-language pathologist, or SLP, if you worry about your child’s speech and language skills. You can consult ASHA’s ProFind to find an SLP who uses your languages, or any SLP can work with an interpreter to provide services to your child and family. For more information, see Learning More Than One Language.

Signs of Childhood Language Disorders

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

  • understanding what people mean when they use gestures, like shrugging or nodding; 
  • following directions; 
  • answering questions; 
  • pointing to objects and pictures; and/or 
  • knowing how to take turns when talking with others. 

Some children have problems with expressive language, or talking. They may have trouble:

  • asking questions; 
  • naming objects; 
  • using gestures;
  • putting words together into sentences; 
  • learning songs and rhymes; and 
  • using correct pronouns, like "he" or "they." 

Children can have problems with both understanding and talking.

Some children also have trouble with reading and writing, which may be related to a learning disability, such as 

  • holding a book right side up; 
  • looking at pictures in a book and turning pages; 
  • telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end; 
  • naming letters and numbers; and 
  • learning the alphabet. 

Causes of Childhood Language Disorders

In some cases, language disorders have no known cause. Here are some other possible reasons that your child may have trouble with language: 

  • autism
  • being born early 
  • brain injury
  • cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome
  • family history of language problems
  • fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
  • hearing loss
  • learning disabilities
  • low birth weight 
  • problems with feeding and nutrition
  • stroke

Testing for Childhood Language Disorders

Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, may work on a team to test your child. The team includes you, your child’s teacher, and others. The team can see if your child's language skills are at age level.  

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

  • follows directions;
  • names common objects and actions;
  • knows colors, numbers, and letters;
  • follows routines like putting their coat away or sitting during circle time;
  • sings songs or repeats nursery rhymes;
  • changes how they talk to different people and in different places; and
  • is able to get what they need at home, during play, and at school.

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

  • looks at and talks about pictures in books;
  • knows common signs and logos, like fast food places or stores;
  • holds a book the correct way and turns the pages;
  • knows what their name looks like and tries to write it; and
  • tries to write letters and numbers.

Sometimes, language disorders are not diagnosed until your child reaches middle or high school. Language problems in oder children may show up as

  • difficulty following directions in the classroom;
  • poor grades;
  • difficulty reading;
  • poor spelling;
  • limited vocabulary; 
  • difficulty telling stories or expressing ideas;
  • difficulty thinking of words;
  • using simple sentence structure compared with peers;
  • difficulty using correct word endings;
  • difficulty making inferences or understanding figurative language; and
  • difficulty participating in conversations with peers or adults.

Different Names of Language Disorders

A spoken language disorder can be called different names based on your child's needs. Your SLP may use one of the following names:

  • developmental language disorder
  • specific language impairment 

Your child may have a language disorder related to a learning disability. Visit the Learning Disabilities page for more information.

Treatment for Childhood Language Disorders

The SLP will work with your child to improve their understanding and talking. The SLP can also help your child get ready to read and write. Strong language skills help your child learn and make friends.

The SLP will work with you to set goals for your child and may work on activities like these:

  • Learning early reading and writing skills.
  • Increasing your child’s understanding of vocabulary words, directions, and complex sentences.
  • Giving your child strategies and skills that help them use words to tell others what they think, feel, and know. 
  • Showing you, your family, and teachers ways to strengthen your child's language skills. 
  • Helping your child use other ways to communicate when needed. This may include using simple gestures, picture boards, or computers that say words out loud. This is known as augmentative or alternative communication, or AAC.

Your child may work with the SLP individually, in small groups, or in the classroom at school. In schools, SLPs work closely with teachers, especially with preschool and elementary–age students. The SLP can also help you learn more about what you can do to help your child.

Tips for Helping Your Child

Here are some ways you can help your child:

  • Talk to your child often. This will help your child learn new words.
  • Read to your child every day. Point out words you see.
  • Describe what you see in the world around you, or comment on what your child does in play.
  • Point to signs in the grocery store, at school, and outside.
  • Speak to your child in the language or languages you are most comfortable using. 
  • Listen and answer when your child talks.
  • Get your child to ask you questions.
  • Give your child time to answer questions.
  • Expand upon what your child says. 
  • Set time limits for watching TV and using computers. Use the time for talking and reading together.

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

To find a speech-language pathologist near you, visit ProFind

Other Resources

This list does not include every website on this topic. ASHA does not endorse the information on these sites.

ASHA Corporate Partners