Late Talkers: What You Need to Know

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Have you ever heard the term, “Late Talker” and wondered what exactly “late” means?

A late talker, also known as late language emergence (LLE), is defined as having delayed expressive language in toddler years (e.g. fewer than 50 words and no word combinations, or falling below the 10th percentile in word use at 24-30 months). On average, late talkers are identified around 24-months.

NOTE: Expressive language is the “output” of language such as expressing wants and needs through verbal or nonverbal communication. On the other hand, receptive language is roughly synonymous with comprehension. Typically late talkers can comprehend and understand more than they can express (e.g. receptive language is not significantly delayed, but expressive is).

On a positive note, approximately 2/3 of late talkers fall within normal range by preschool. However, it is important to note that late talkers who catch up may continue to have some weaknesses in certain language and literacy skills (e.g. vocab, grammar, reading, understanding/creating stories, writing, and listening comprehension), other skills related to language (e.g. social skills and executive functioning skills), and differences in how the brain processes speech. You may be wondering what about the remaining third?

It is still unclear as to why 1/3 of late talkers develop a language impairment, however, it may be related to those who present with more risk factors such as:

  • Gender: Boys are at higher risk for LLE than girls.
  • Motor development: Late talkers were found to have delayed motor development (in absence of disorders/syndromes associated with motor delays) when compared to typically developing children.
  • Birth status: Children born with less than 85% of their optimum birth weight or earlier than 37 weeks gestation are at higher risk for LLE.
  • Early language development: Language abilities at 12 months is a good predictor of communication skills at 24 months.
  • Family history of late talkers: It has been suggested there is a genetic component to LLE.
  • Maternal education and SES: Lower maternal education and SES is associated with a higher risk for LLE.
  • Recurrent ear infections: Research suggests that early recurrent otitis media (ear infections) may result in delays in language development.

What about early signs of LLE?

  • Less than 50 words and no word combinations as mentioned above
  • Limited number of consonant sounds (e.g. p,b, t, d, n, y, k, g)
  • Does not link pretend ideas and actions together while playing
  • Does not imitate words
  • Uses mostly nouns and few verbs
  • Difficulty playing with peers
  • Uses few gestures to communicate

What are some things that act as protective factors?

  • Access to pre-, peri-, and postnatal care
  • Learning opportunities such as:
    • exposure to rich and varied vocab and discourse patterns
    • responsive learning environments
    • access to printed materials
    • involvement in structured and unstructured group play and conversations
    • engagement in fine motor activities
    • access to communication supports or services as needed.

My child has signs or multiple risk factors of LLE, what now?

If a child has any of the above risk factors or signs, it is recommended that you consult a speech-language pathologist (SLP). Many parents, whose child seems to be typically developing in every other way, are told not to worry by family members, friends, or the internet. For some, their pediatrician has even advised waiting until at least 2 years old before seeking help. This “wait-and-see” approach is a widespread misconception about language development. While there is great variability at this age, if a child doesn’t meet certain milestones, you are better safe than sorry. Intervention can only help, whereas waiting may impede language development. Helping late talkers as early as possible can really make a difference and can increase their odds for long-term success in their language development.

That’s where we come in!

At Worldwide Speech we have SLPs who are well versed in early intervention. Head to our website for a free 20-minute consultation to learn more about our online services.

In addition…

It is important to have your child’s hearing evaluated by an audiologist. Even if you believe your child is hearing just fine, it is important to know if they are hearing sounds at a variety of volumes and pitches. Hearing impairments, even if very mild, can cause difficulty with speech and language development.

What can an SLP do to help late talkers?

As an SLP, a key component to the success of treatment is working closely with families. Some information we like to gather include: family concerns and what they hope to accomplish, determining parents ideas of the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and available resources.

There are a number of different approaches and strategies. These interventions may be clinician-directed (e.g. drill-based), child-centered (e.g. play-based and include everyday natural settings), or a combination of both. Augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) methods may be an option as a temporary means of communication until they are able to produce speech. Whatever technique is used, we have to make sure it is appropriate for the cultural background of the child, that the family is also considered, and prioritize treatment techniques that are evidence-based.

What can a parent do to help their late talker?

Below are some tips and guidelines to help your child develop language. These are not meant to be used as a replacement for therapy but can aid in development. In addition, your SLP will typically provide parent education regarding tips and tricks to help with the progression of therapy and provide carry-over activities to practice outside of the sessions.

Self Talk

Talk about EVERYTHING! Talk about what you’re doing, describe what you’re holding, actions you perform, what you see, how you feel, and what you hear, smell, and taste! Your child will learn by hearing you talk about all those things. The key is to keep your descriptions short, sweet, and to the point. Typically you want to match the length of your phrases/sentences the same or slightly longer than your child speaks (e.g. if your child does not speak at all or speaks in 1-word utterances, you should speak in one-word or two-word phrases like, “Ball. Throw. Throw ball!”

Parallel Talk

Parallel talk is similar to self-talk but rather than talking about what you’re doing, you talk about what your child is doing! For example, if your child is stacking blocks quietly you could say, “Stack blocks!”


With this strategy, you build upon your child’s speech or gestures. Take whatever your child says and add one word to is. For example, if your child says “Ball” you could say “want ball,” “red ball,” “throw ball,” etc.