Parents often wonder if their child’s development is on track, but one of the most problematic areas is speech and language development. We find out more about the signs to look out for and sources of support and guidance

Speech and language delay is one of the most concerning areas when it comes to your child’s development. Of course, there isn’t a parent on the planet who doesn’t worry at some point if their child is on track. Milestones are monitored and alarm bells ring when other children appear to have key skills your child is struggling with. Children do, of course, develop at different paces. But with ongoing concern about the negatives of screen use, now we have the impact of nearly two years of intermittent lockdowns. This is raising concerns among experts as well as parents, about speech, language and communication skills – especially for our youngest learners. Trips on the bus, exposure to family members and visits to play settings all help children acquire language. It’s not just speaking that matters, but understanding what others say.

Speech therapist Amy Loxley, a Lead Speech & Language Advisor for the children’s communication charity I CAN, believes lockdown deprived children of many of the usual routes for developing communication. “Even that requirement to stay close to home and have limited contact with others has deprived children of a range of social experiences,” she says. “This is the range of experiences you have in early life, where you’re exposed to new words.”

“That requirement to have limited contact with others has deprived children of social experiences that expose them to new words and this may have impacted speech and language development”

There’s now some evidence to support the idea that this has led to an increase in speech and language delay issues. “I CAN undertook some research last year, published in a report called ‘Speaking up for the COVID generation’. We found in that research that there are 1.5m children in the UK who are at risk of not being able to speak and understand language at an age-appropriate level,” says Amy Loxley. Certainly, referrals for communication difficulties have increased, noted by both the Department for Education and speech therapists.

I CAN develops intervention programmes used in mainstream schools as well as running two specialist schools for children with complex language difficulties. A lot of their work with mainstream schools centres on Developmental Language Delay (DLD). This is a condition unconnected with any other conditions that can cause lifelong issues speaking and understanding others. “It affects 7.6% of children – another way of looking at that is two in every class of 30 – so is actually quite common,” says Amy Loxley.

The other key group that I CAN works with is children who have language difficulties due to environmental factors – in other words, the setting they are in. This group is much larger in areas of disadvantage. “One in ten children across the UK has a difficulty with speech and language, but that can rise to one in four in areas of disadvantage,” says Amy Loxley.

Understanding speech and language delay
Lockdowns have undoubtedly removed some of the normal social situations and experiences where children would pick up speech and language skills

Speech and language warning signs

One of the big questions for parents is: do I need to seek help? While no one wants a label on their child, the fundamental building blocks need to be in place.  “Language skills underly all skills, so even when children learn to read and write, that’s based on them understanding and using spoken language,” says Amy Loxley. I CAN runs a free phone advice service where parents can talk to a speech and language therapist. Typically, parents ring for advice because they have noticed that their child uses less words or simpler words and sentences than their peers. It could be that a child’s speech sounds jumbled or muddled up, so that it’s hard to understand.

Less commonly, parents may recognise their child is having trouble understanding what is said to them – often this isn’t spotted so early. It might be trouble following an instruction, for instance, or a teacher reporting that the child doesn’t listen in class or isn’t getting work done when asked. The issue here can become complicated by how adults view this failure to do what’s asked. “Sometimes that’s interpreted as something else – people think it’s a behaviour problem, when it’s actually the child not understanding language.”

Sources of support

If parents are worried and believe they may need expert support, the team at I CAN will listen to their concerns. They can also explain the steps for getting a speech therapy referral via the NHS or opting for the private route. Usually, the first step is simple approaches to try at home to see if the child’s communication improves. They include going a bit slower when you are talking and making comments rather than asking questions – a technique to open up dialogue without putting undue pressure on a child. “Children do pick up on that feeling when parents are particularly anxious or worried and are trying to get them to do something,” says Amy Loxley.

“There are 1.5m children in the UK who are at risk of not being able to speak and understand language at an age-appropriate level”

Although lockdown hasn’t helped any of our children, the good news is that parents can make a real difference to build both speech and understanding. Chatting and playing are vital, says Amy Loxley, also a really good way to spot potential issues. Taking time and choosing the right language level are vital, which means choosing simple, age-appropriate words and keep things light and open. “It’s about talking with children rather than talking to them – you’re trying to get them into a back-and-forth interaction,” says Amy Loxley. As to screen time (that other great worry), all the expert guidance suggests that the less children have in early years the better. The sound advice here is that TV (or other device) is never a substitute for the stimulation and learning of old-fashioned play and interaction. That said, children love screen time and so watching an age-appropriate programme with your child and discussing what’s going on with them is a way to make this an active experience that builds communication skills.

The other great route that helps children get into speaking and understanding language is books, using the same sharing approach. “Parents don’t always have to read all the words in the book. They can even just talk about the pictures and about what the child is interested in,” says Amy Loxley. “Relate things in the book back to their experiences – it’s all about drawing those connections for your child.”

* For more guidance and support about speech and language delay and other communication issues, visit I CAN’s talking point for parents at

Further reading: Left behind – are left-handed children being let down?