Your 3-year-old is still not talking, and you’re worried because his friends are chattering non-stop.
My child is three years old but hardly talks. Should I worry?
Yes, say the experts. “At three, a child should have a sentence length of three to four words, and a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. So, if your kid is hardly talking – for example, using only single words – you should be concerned,” says Kristl Alphonso, speech therapist at Singapore General Hospital.
“Parents should take their child to a paediatrician for an expert opinion,” advises Tee Suat Chin, speech therapist from Little Chatterbox speech and language therapy centre.
Related: 9 ways to get your toddler talking
But won’t he just grow out of it?
“It’s true, some kids are late talkers. Yet, for others, they really do need therapy. You can sit and wait, and maybe by four he will start speaking. But what if he doesn’t? In our educational system, you can’t afford to waste that time – it’s stressful because most kids by four are already attending enrichment classes,” states Suat Chin.
Kristl agrees: “The risk of your child not growing out of it far outweighs the chance that he may. We know that early intervention is effective. If your child shows difficulties at a young age, it is better that these issues are addressed sooner to help him better achieve his potential. Even if your child is a late bloomer, having intervention will not
affect him negatively. In fact, it can further improve and stimulate his speech and language development.”
Likewise, early intervention is critical for stuttering. If left untreated for too long, it can become a chronic problem that remains with Junior for the rest of his life.
How will speech and language problems affect my child’s performance at school?
Both oral and written language are linked, and a kid may have problems with reading and writing due to poor awareness of sound structures.
“For children who have difficulties expressing themselves, a simple show-and-tell activity would also pose a very big challenge,” observes Kristl. Yet, for others, understanding and following complex instructions from teachers can be difficult as well.
And it’s not just the academic demands. Your child may find it hard to socialise and make friends at school, especially when he can’t articulate well.
How does speech therapy work?
It usually starts with an initial consultation, where the therapist will assess your kid’s speech and language skill.
At the Little Chatterbox centre, therapy aims to be fun as well. One of Suat Chin’s oro-motor exercises involves giving the child snacks in various textures (hard, crunchy or soft) to eat, so as to teach the different movements of the jaw and tongue.
She adds: “Feeding patterns can affect speech clarity. For instance, I’ve noticed that children who have speech difficulty munch food in front of their mouths. There is no chewing motion in their cheek pockets. They are not able to use their tongue movements to keep their food in the pockets. These children often struggle with sounds like ‘k’, ‘g’, ‘s’, ‘sh’ and ‘ch’.”
However, “therapy does not end in the session but often involves parents following up with what was taught, to ensure that the skills and strategies learnt can be applied in functional situations”, cautions Kristl.
The frequency of therapy is determined by the speech therapist, based on the kid’s diagnosis and its severity. “Therapy, ideally, would be once a week. But we also have to cater to parents’ and children’s schedules,” says Kristl.
Can I stop after seeing improvement?
Yes, therapy often ends when the child’s communication skill is on par with that of his peers, says Kristl. The duration varies on a case-by-case basis, and is dependant on various factors, such as the complexity of his speech problem and individual differences.