Preschool Language Disorders

by The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) 

Speech and language problems may happen before your child starts school. Getting your child seen early is important. Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, can help.


About Preschool Language Disorders

Children all learn language in the same way, but not always at the same time. Some children talk early and understand everything you say. Others do not talk much or have trouble listening. Children can have speech or language problems before they start school.

Your child is preschool age if she is 3 to 5 years old and has not yet started kindergarten. She may have problems following directions or understanding questions. She may have trouble learning new words or saying sentences. Your child can have problems with both. This is a language disorder.

Your child may also have trouble saying sounds clearly. This is a speech sound disorder.

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

Speaking More Than One Language

Learning a second language does not cause language problems. Children all over the world learn to speak other languages. Speak to your child in the language that you know best. Your child will have problems in both languages if she has a language disorder.

Signs of Preschool Language Disorders

Some children have problems understanding, called receptive language. 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 
  • Knowing how to take turns when talking with others 

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

  • Asking questions 
  • Naming objects 
  • Using gestures 
  • Putting words together into sentences 
  • Learning songs and rhymes 
  • Using correct pronouns, like "he" or "they" 
  • Knowing how to start a conversation and keep it going 
  • Changing how they talk to different people and in different places. For example, you speak differently to an adult than a young child. You can talk louder outside than inside.

Many children have problems with both understanding and talking.

Some children also have trouble with early reading and writing, 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 end 
  • Naming letters and numbers 
  • Learning the alphabet 

Causes of Preschool Language Disorders

You may not know for sure what caused your child's language problems. Some possible reasons are:

  • Other people in your family having language problems 
  • Being born early 
  • Low birth weight 
  • Hearing loss 
  • Autism 
  • Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome 
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder 
  • Stroke 
  • Brain injury 
  • Cerebral palsy 
  • Poor nutrition 
  • Failure to thrive

Testing for Preschool Language Disorders

Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, may work on a team to test your child. The team includes you, your child’s preschool teacher, and others. The team can see if your child's language skills are at age level. The SLP will use some tests and also play with your child. The SLP wants to know:

  • Does your child know what to do with toys?
  • Does your child use pretend play?

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

  • Follows directions
  • Names common objects and actions
  • Knows colors, numbers, and letters
  • Follows routines like putting his coat away or sitting during circle time
  • Sings songs or repeats nursery rhymes
  • Changes how he talks to different people and in different places
  • Is able to get what he needs at home, during play, and at preschool

The SLP will see if your child's speech is easy to understand. She will look at how your child uses her lips, tongue, and teeth to make sounds. The SLP will have your child imitate sounds or words.

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

  • Looks at and talks about pictures in books
  • Knows common signs and logos, like fast food places or stores
  • Holds a book the right way and turns the pages
  • Knows what his name looks like and tries to write it
  • Tries to write letters and numbers

Treatment for Preschool Language Disorders

The SLP will work with your child to improve her understanding and talking. The SLP can also help your child get ready to read and write. Good language skills help your child learn, behave, make friends, and feel better about herself.

The SLP will work with you to set goals for your child. Here are some possible treatment goals:

  • Increase your child’s understanding
  • Improve how your child uses words to tell others what he thinks
  • Teach you, your family, and teachers how to talk with your child
  • Help your child use other ways to communicate when needed. This may include simple gestures, picture boards, or computers that say words out loud. This is augmentative or alternative communication, or AAC.
  • Learn early reading and writing skills

Your child may work with the SLP alone or in small groups. The SLP may go into your child’s preschool to work with the teacher. The SLP can also help you learn more about what you can do at home to help your child.

Tips for Helping Your Child

Here are some ways you can help your child:

  • Talk a lot to your child. This will help your child learn new words.
  • Read to your child every day. Point out words you see.
  • Point to signs in the grocery store, at school, and outside.
  • Speak to your child in the language you know best.
  • Listen and answer when your child talks.
  • Get your child to ask you questions.
  • Give your child time to answer questions.
  • 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.

See ASHA information for professionals on the Practice Portal's Spoken Language Disorders page.

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

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