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Children Reaching Age 3 Without Being
Able To Say A Word, Survey Finds

Children are reaching the age of 3 without being able to say a word, according to a survey that also found boys are almost twice as likely to struggle to learn to speak as girls.

The average age for a baby to speak their first word is 10 to 11 months. However, a significant minority (4 per cent) of parents reported that their child said nothing until they were 3.

Toddlers between the ages of 2 and 3 should be able to use up to 300 words, including adjectives, and be able to link words together, according to I CAN, the children’s communication charity. Late speech development can lead to problems, such as low achievement at school or mental health problems.

The survey of more than 1,000 parents found that a child’s background was not a factor in how quickly they learnt to talk. Working parents who put their babies in day care are just as likely to have a child whose speech develops late as those who leave their baby in front of the television.

Virginia Beardshaw, the chief executive of I CAN, said that learning to talk required help and encouragement. “We know there is a golden period for developing children’s communication between 0 and 5 and that early intervention is vital if children are struggling,” she said. “Chatting to your child, playing word games, pointing things out and having fun together every day all give your child the right start to communication.”

Parents should interact as much as possible, reading stories and talking to their children to encourage them to start talking, speech therapists advise. They say that dummies should only be resorted to at bedtime so children are free to make sounds and form words during the day.

More girls than boys (34 per cent against 27 per cent) said their first word before they reached nine months, the YouGov poll of 1,015 parents of children aged 1 to 7 found.

Almost one in six parents reported that their child had problems learning to talk. Among parents of boys the figure rose to one in four.

The vast majority (95 per cent) of parents remembered their child’s first word. The most common was “Dadda” (15 per cent), with 10 per cent saying “Mama” first. Besides parental names the top word was “cat”, followed by “car” and “no”. Some more unusual choices were “beer”, “gadget”, “hoover” and even “tits-up”.

Girls were quicker to join words together, with more than 20 per cent having done so by the age of 1, compared to 16 per cent of boys. Almost one quarter of those who had problems learning to talk did not receive any help from a speech and language therapist, nursery or playgroup staff.

Jean Gross, the Government’s new adviser on childhood language development, said that it was a real problem that children as old as 3 were unable to talk. “It has lifelong effects for children in terms of their ability to learn to read and write,” she said.

Ms Gross said childhood health targets were too focused on obesity levels and immunisation rates at the expense of more subtle difficulties.

All of those surveyed last month reported looking at picture books with their child, telling stories, playing word games and singing nursery rhymes, with boys and girls enjoying these activities equally and at a similar age.

However, children from more affluent families were said to enjoy doing so at a younger age than children from less affluent families.

Eighty per cent of parents knew that the correct response if their child mispronounced a word was to repeat it back to them in the correct way.

Case study: 'He's now chatty and sociable'

Lee Rose reached the age of 3 able to say only five words. His parents were not worried. “I had no other children to compare him with and his father was a late talker,” said Emma Rose, from Plymouth.

Doctors and health visitors did not pick up the problem. It was not until Lee’s nursery teachers noticed that he lashed out at another child in frustration that concerns were raised. After an assessment he was referred to an I CAN centre — a mainstream nursery school with a specialist speech and language department and a support group for parents.

Lee spent 12 months at the centre. “It was the one-to-one help that he needed and early intervention,” said Mrs Rose. Now 8, he is in the top group for all his lessons at primary school. “They have turned my little boy’s life around. He is chatty, sociable and has lots of friends.” Mrs Rose, 39, a former hospital technician, is retraining as a speech and language assistant.

January 4, 2010

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