Do late talkers catch up & when should I seek help? | A Growing Understanding

Do Late Talkers ‘Catch Up’ and When Should I Seek Help?

‘His father didn’t start speaking until he was 3.’

‘The GP said there is nothing to worry about.’

‘Kids start talking when they are ready.’

As speech pathologists, we often hear these things, but does the current research support the ‘monitoring’ or ‘wait and see what happens’ approach to late talking?

When it comes to late talkers, some children do appear to catch up and have no ongoing language difficulties, while others appear to have ongoing language difficulties throughout their formal schooling, and sometimes for their lifetime.

We know that not all children develop at the same pace. Some children start talking way before their first birthday and other children don’t start talking until they are closer to three! It can be confusing for parents and carers to know when to seek help from a speech pathologist or if their child is developing typically.

What is a Late Talker?

A ‘late talker‘ is typically described as a child between the ages of 18 – 30 months who are mostly developing appropriately in the areas of motor development (e.g. crawling, walking), play skills, social skills, cognitive skills, even their understanding of language. However, despite this typical development in other areas, these children have difficulties with their oral expressive language skills.

A child is considered a late talker if they have:

  • Less than 24 words between the ages of 18-20 months
  • Less than 40 words between the ages of 21-24 months
  • Less than 100 words between the ages of 24 and 30 months
  • No word combinations by 24 months (e.g. Mummy go, in car)
  • Appropriate skills in their other areas of development, as outlined above
  • May have some risk factors for ongoing language development such as limited use of gestures, limited use of speech sounds, or a positive family history of language difficulties.

Will My Late Talker ‘Grow Out of It’?

There have been studies done into late talkers and how it affects a child as they develop. The Early Language in Victoria Study (ELVS) is a long-term study conducted in Australia that has tracked the language development of 1,910 children from eight months of age into their adolescence. They have tracked this using a combination of parent surveys and formal language assessments.

The study found that approximately 19% of these children were considered ‘late talkers’ using the above criteria at the age of two.

The ELVS study also found that at the age of four, approximately 30% of children who were late talkers at two do not catch up with their peers. These children often continue to have ongoing difficulties with their language skills and may be diagnosed with a Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or a Language Disorder associated with additional developmental issues.

Speech Pathologists aren’t able to predict with absolute certainty which children will catch up, or won’t catch up with their talking, however, certain risk factors appear more suggestive that a child will have continued language difficulties. These include:

  • A family history of speech, language, or communication difficulties
  • A quiet baby, who had limited or no babbling prior to 12 months of age
  • A history of, or current ear infections
  • Not imitating sounds and words
  • Uses no words, or mostly only labelling words (e.g. cat, car, biscuit) with limited action words (e.g. go, jump, stop!)
  • Only uses a few speech sounds (e.g. m, b, s)
  • Has difficulty playing with their peers, or appears to play alone
  • Doesn’t use any, or very limited gestures (e.g. holding hands up to ask to be picked up, or pointing to the door to ask to go outside)
  • Difficulty with their understanding of language (e.g. may not be able to follow simple instructions or answer simple questions).

But what about the other 70% of children that appear to catch up?

Does this mean that the other 70% of the late talkers at the age of four have ‘caught up’ with their peers? Research doesn’t always support this idea. Research is supporting the fact that these children often continue to have ongoing weaknesses in their language and literacy skills, even if they look like they have caught up on their language development at the age of four.

This can include having smaller vocabularies, difficulties with grammar, reading, spelling, and writing, as well as reading comprehension. These children also appear to have weaker social skills, attention, and planning skills than children who were not late talkers.

These are all language and associated skills that are vital to academic success.

Is Seeking Out Speech Pathology Helpful for Late Talkers?

If your child is 18-30 months, and is not yet talking, or has a limited vocabulary it is recommended that you speak with a speech pathologist and complete an assessment and early intervention.

At A Growing Understanding, we provide individualised assessment and intervention for your family to support early language development. We also run highly effective and gold standard quality groups and individual programs, certified by the Hanen Centre. These are focussed on supporting families of late talking toddlers and children with language difficulties. These include the It Takes Two to Talk program and the Target Word Program. You can read more about these programs at

We would love to work with you to support your child where they are now, and into the future. Give us a call to book your assessment appointment.

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