Friday 27 April 2018

Checklist can tell if toddlers' language skills are up to scratch

Nick Collins

A SIMPLE test which identifies toddlers struggling with speech as early as two could prevent them falling behind their peers, researchers claim.

By comparing their child's speaking ability against a checklist of 310 basic words, parents could determine whether they are at risk of language-related difficulties that last into adulthood.

A study shows that children who could speak fewer than 50 words on the list at the age of two were more likely to be behind their peers in their vocabulary, grammar and reading ability at 17.

Identifying "late talkers" early could allow parents to intervene at an early age with language coaching and other methods proven to help speed up children's development, researchers said.

Dr Leslie Rescorla of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania said the checklist of words could highlight an "enduring relative weakness in the area of early language development and hence later language skills."

Children who are late to develop speech are at higher risk of conditions like autism and other developmental problems such as impaired language ability.

About eighty per cent of those who are behind at the age of two are simply "late bloomers", but children who are still failing the test at the age of two and a half or three may need language therapy to help them reach their full potential, she said.

A study by Prof Rescorla suggested that failing to intervene could leave late talkers lagging behind their peer group throughout their school years and into adult life.

The 15-year project followed 40 children from privileged backgrounds who were diagnosed as late talkers but were otherwise developing normally.

While most of the children had caught up and developed an average range of vocabulary by four or five they remained slightly behind peers from the same background in vocabulary, grammar and reading throughout their school years, suggesting that their late development of speech had put them at a disadvantage.

The word test devised by Prof Rescorla can be completed in ten minutes and doctors can tell at a glance whether a child's speaking ability is poor for their age.

Parents are asked to check off every word on the list that their child has said spontaneously, and list five examples of word combinations they have used.

A child with average speaking ability would have 150 to 200 of the words on the list in their vocabulary, while late talkers typically have about 25.

These are likely to be limited to the most basic words on the list, such as "mummy" and "no", rather than more complex ones like "telephone" or "elephant".

If their delay in language development is not related to another condition, like autism, research suggests that speech and language therapy can be effective in helping children develop their vocabulary.

Some children need to hear words more times in order to learn them, while others would benefit from being talked to directly rather than learning language by watching television, Prof Rescorla said.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, she said: "Children really need to have people talk to them in order for them to acquire a language - not that they don't learn anything from videos and television, but really they need language partners."

Prof Nan Bernstein Ratner, of the University of Maryland, who chaired the seminar, added: "You can't substitute the kind of input that you give a child by plopping them in front of a television.

"That child needs to be engaged back and forth with another person in order to untangle language."

20 words which most children should be able to use by the age of two: Mummy, daddy, milk, juice, hi, hello, ball, no, dog, cat, nose, eye, show, banana, car, hot, thank you, shoe.

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