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Think hearing first - changes in children's hearing

Hearing loss can happen in children at any age, even if they passed the newborn hearing screen. It’s important to monitor children’s hearing, as it can change gradually, often without anyone noticing, and can impact their speech and language development.

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Signs that a child might have hearing loss

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What’s the difference between language and speech differ?

It’s common to hear the terms speech and language used interchangeably, however they have quite different meanings – particularly in a speech pathology setting.

Speech is the way we produce sounds to form words. It’s the physical act of talking and how we articulate our vowels and consonants to make recognisable sounds that form words.

Language is how we use words to communicate our messages to other people. Language is made up of:

  • Vocabulary (the words we use)
  • Expressive language (conveying our own thoughts through words, phrases and sentences)
  • Receptive language (how we understand the words, phrases and sentences used by others).

People can experience challenges with speech, language or even both at any age. Knowing some of the typical developmental stages to look out for in children will help identify any developmental concerns early.

What are speech and language delays?

The signs of speech development delays or language delays to look out for in children can vary.

Speech development delays

Speech development delays in children can include:

  • You or others having trouble understanding what the child is saying
  • The child is producing the same word in a number of ways (e.g. saying dar or gar for ‘car’)
  • Saying words with incorrect vowels (e.g. car becomes core)
  • Dropping off initial sounds of words (e.g. car becomes ‘ar)
  • Frustration when communicating with other people.
Child Reading Book In Speech Therapy Appointment
child with hearing aids

Language development delays

Some indications of language development delays may include:

  • Trouble following instructions (e.g. “Go and put your shoes on.”)
  • Signs of echolalia which is where a child repeats back what was said without following the instruction (e.g. a parent says, “Go and put your shoes on” and the child repeats the sentence or even part or it, without understanding and doing the task)
  • Poor vocabulary, with limited understanding of what words mean or not able to name objects, animals etc.
  • Having trouble answering the “Wh-” questions
  • Poor concentration
  • Appears to understand what an object is (e.g. by pointing), but is not able to articulate what it is called
  • Frustration when communicating with other people.

Does my child have a speech and language development issue?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is taking a little bit longer to reach a speech or language milestone or whether there are possible developmental issues. Here are some key indications to look out for in a child’s first two years:

  • Not babbling by the age of 15 months
  • Not talking by  two years old
  • Has difficultly following instructions
  • Struggles to put words together in a sentence
  • Leaving words out of sentences
  • Unable to articulate or understand, at a basic level, what is being said to them

Risk factors for language delay

Some conditions that might increase the risk of language delay in young children could include:

  • Prematurity
  • Birth trauma
  • Congenital medical conditions or syndromes
  • Family history of hearing loss or language delay
Img Child Wearing Hearing Aids With Toy Bear
Toddler Reading Box With Adult

Diagnosing speech and development issues

If you suspect your child might have speech or language development issues, a speech pathologist can help. First, they will undertake a speech and language assessment which looks at your child’s current developmental level and ability to interact and communicate with people around them. The assessments use standardised and dynamic tests such as play, conversation and other strategies to gain insight into your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

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How to encourage late talkers to speak

A late talker often refers to a toddler aged between 18 months and 30 months who is not communicating verbally and in some cases the reason is not apparent. All babies in Queensland now have the free newborn hearing screening at birth, however in some cases a baby may pass this test and develop hearing loss later on.

There are some typical milestones children reach as they grow and develop however late talkers often hit these milestones later than their siblings or peers.

With early identification and early intervention, coupled with hearing technology and speech therapy support, kids can grow up hearing and speaking. In fact, most children with hearing loss who receive early intervention prior to 12 months of age, develop age-appropriate speech and language skills by the time they are three years old.1

Two Children With Adult Doing Craft

Tips for late talkers

The building blocks of speech and language are set very early in life. Below are some quick tips for families to consider when encouraging late talkers to speak:

Sometimes families will find they’re asking children questions over and over again and not getting a response. If a child is not talking, asking them lots of questions might be overwhelming and frustrating. Instead of asking a child, “What’s that? Is it a bird?”, change your comment to, “Hello bird!”. As a rule, try to balance every question with two comments.

Kids love to play games. Imaginative play is key for learning new skills and practising in a safe and comforting environment. Playing is vital in encouraging children to develop their language. One example is getting together a doll’s tea set, bottles and something that can be a pretend bed. Encourage the child to act out the situation through play and as they’re doing this, talk to them about what they’re doing. Keeping sentences short and using just the words needed will help.

Children also love to read books. Reading out loud to children is one of the greatest opportunities to expose them to lots of different sounds, language and vocabulary. This is particularly important for children who are deaf.

Sometimes, for late talkers, alongside the later development of speech and language, comes some mistakes in their ability to pronounce certain words or phrases. They may also make some grammatical mistakes. When this happens, rather than correcting the error they have made, be supportive and encouraging of their effort to try and facilitate further attempts to speak. Make sure that you always use the right words, pronunciation and grammatical structures, so that the child is hearing correct models of language and speech.

When you’re trying to help a child express themselves, it’s natural to tell them the names of things such as cat, dog or chocolate. It’s important for a child to learn the other kinds of words for the same things. For example, a dog could be referred to as a puppy or even a pooch.

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FAQs

There are a number of things that could impact speech or language developments in children, including hearing loss, or ear infections such as glue ear.

Many areas of development are inter-linked with language and speech. For example, cognitive processes such as understanding concepts of ‘big’ and ‘small’, counting, learning names of shapes – these all rely on language. Similarly, social skills have a huge language and speech component – the simple routines of greeting and farewelling need language and speech to convey those social interactions. Literacy skills (such as beginning to learn to read and write) are underpinned by strong language and speech skills.

With early identification and early intervention, coupled with hearing technology and specialised speech therapy support, kids who are deaf or hard of hearing can grow up hearing and speaking just like their siblings and friends.

There are typical milestones children tend to reach as they grow up which can be used as a guide to determine if they’re showing symptoms of hearing loss. Typically, by about 12 months old, a baby will start to produce simple words and sounds of common animals, objects or vehicles.

References

1 Choi, S. M. R., Kei, J., & Wilson, W. J. (2017). Rates of hearing loss in primary school children in Australia: A systematic review. Speech, Language and Hearing20(3), 154-162.

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