By CELA on 19 Feb, 2024

Language and literacy skills empower children, offering them the freedom to explore new experiences, forge friendships, and express their desires, needs, and thoughts. Effective communication enhances their learning capabilities and fosters their ongoing engagement in society.

Early childhood education professionals recognise the critical role of nurturing language development from a young age. Infants thrive through the joy of rhymes, music, storytelling, and personalised interactions. As children grow, they flourish in environments enriched with language, where they have access to an array of literacy materials and tools, alongside ample opportunities for diverse social engagements.

Identifying language development challenges

But how can educators and teachers know if a child is experiencing language difficulties? Will language issues in early childhood impact a child's literacy learning in primary school? 

While many children who are late talkers grow up to have acceptable language skills, research indicates that speech and language competence in early childhood can influence school literacy achievements. 

Children learn skills progressively. Acquiring oral language skills in early childhood, such as understanding word meanings, sounds, and the grammatical framework of sentences, lays the foundational stones for reading and writing in primary school. Mastery of these skills, including word recognition and comprehension, hinges on familiarity with pronunciation and meanings. However, children grappling with speech and language issues encounter more significant obstacles in developing and enhancing their literacy skills. The "Growing Up in Australia" study, a comprehensive longitudinal examination of Australian children, divided participants into two categories during the latter part of early childhood: those facing speech and language challenges (SLC) and their peers without such concerns.

Throughout primary school, the SLC children achieved lower literacy scores compared with those in the second group. This study also found the SLC children progressed normally at school but did not catch up to the literacy levels achieved by the children in the second group.

How speech develops over time

The Australia Government Health Direct website points out that babies need to learn how language sounds before the can learn how to speak and that while individual children develop at their own rate, there are some general patterns: 

Although individual children develop at their own rate, there are some general patterns:

  • From 1 to 3 months of age, babies cry and coo.
  • At 4 to 6 months of age, babies sigh, grunt, gurgle, squeal, laugh and make different crying sounds.
  • Between 6 and 9 months, babies babble in syllables and start imitating tones and speech sounds.
  • By 12 months, a baby's first words usually appear. By 18 months to 2 years children use around 50 words and will start putting two words together into phrases or short sentences.
  • From 2 to 3 years, sentences extend to 4 and 5 words. Children can recognise and identify almost all common objects and pictures, as well as use pronouns (I, me, he, she) and some plurals. Strangers can understand most words.
  • From 3 to 5 years, conversations become longer, and more abstract and complex.
  • By the time a child turns 5, they usually have a 2,500 word vocabulary and talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences. They ask a lot of ‘why?’, ‘what?’ and ‘who?’ questions.

(Source: Health Direct)

Hearing loss in babies and toddlers can cause a delay in speech development.

While the milestones above provide a general framework for language development in neurotypical children, it's essential to understand that neurodiverse children may experience different trajectories in acquiring and using language. Supporting the language development of neurodiverse children requires a multifaceted and personalised approach that embraces their unique needs and strengths.

Enhancing literacy thorough early intervention

Dr. Emilia Djonov, a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Language and Literacy at Macquarie University, says, "Language development prior to school equips children with competencies that are essential for learning to read and write in conventional terms. Among these, phonological awareness stands out, characterised by children's familiarity with the sound structure of language and skills in manipulating speech sounds.

"Oral language skills, which include but extend beyond vocabulary, are another key competency for success in both literacy and learning. Studies show that language development at age three predicts not only reading ability at ages 10 to 11 but achievement in learning overall."  

Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, an extensive meta-analysis of hundreds of studies, found several early abilities that could be precursors of later literacy achievement, including:  

  • knowledge of the names and sounds of letters 
  • ability to write their own name 
  • phonological awareness 
  • ability to quickly name aloud a series of items on a page: letters, numbers, colours, and objects 
  • ability to remember spoken information for a short period of time. 

How does early intervention work? 

Early childhood educators can support children in developing these abilities in preparation for primary school, but this does not mean they need to create a check list. Educators can still maintain a play-based curriculum, as described in The Early Years Learning Framework, that is rich with opportunities for observing, using, and exploring all forms of language. 

"Early educators are well aware of the benefits of play for early learning and are generally able to explain its value to families. Many early childhood services, however, often under pressure from families, adopt methods for supporting literacy that are best left for the early years of school," says Dr. Djonov. "For example, pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all, and expensive, commercial phonics programs are heavily advertised as building knowledge of sound-letter correspondences and thus supporting children in learning to read and write. Their claims, however, have not been tested by rigorous, independent research.” 

"Such research shows, in fact, that preschool-aged children best develop reading and writing skills through child-driven, play-based, authentic, and individualised experiences with print." 

How educators can approach families

Speech pathologist Amanda Simon encourages educators to discuss concerns about language development with the child's family or carer. Check that the child has had a recent hearing test, not just newborn screening.  

"Explore what languages are used at home. However, even if a child comes from a household where English is not the primary language, they should still be able to use eye contact to communicate, listen, and engage in joint attention," says Amanda.  

Marianne Connolly, the Director of St Paul’s Early Learning Centre in North Brisbane, has access to a speech pathologist for children who attend the centre.  

She says, "When approaching a parent about language difficulties their child may be experiencing, it’s critical to be specific. Speaking in general terms is unhelpful. Give specific examples around how it affects them in the context of their early learning environment so that parents can have greater clarity. 

“Sometimes, parents may understand what their child is saying, but the child's peers or teachers might not. This discrepancy can sometimes be hard for parents to accept. It's crucial to clearly explain how the child's language difficulties are presenting themselves. The key to supporting children who need help developing literacy lies in collaboration. Children benefit the most when educators, speech pathologists, and families work together to offer supportive, personalised, and consistent learning experiences.” 


Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2024). Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Family Matters, No. 95. Retrieved from

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved from

Australian Institute of Family Studies. (n.d.). Research findings. Growing Up in Australia. Retrieved from

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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