Communication is fundamental to children’s development – tamariki need to be able to understand and to be understood. It’s essential for learning, play, and is the foundation of relationships.

Communication develops over time, and children move through different stages as they learn how to communicate.

Children need to be able to:

  • understand what people say to them
  • use words and sentences to talk to get their message across
  • speak clearly
  • understand and use gestures, signs and body language
  • look, listen and take turns in a conversation.

Speech, language, social interaction and early literacy skills are all parts of a child's communication. These parts develop together and support each other.

Tamariki having difficulties with language need help as early as possible. You’re the best judge of your child’s language development.

If you’re concerned, trust your instincts and speak with your Plunket nurse, GP, family nurse, your child’s teacher or a close family/whānau member. If you’re still concerned, call the Ministry of Education on 0800 622 222.

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Language development

By age one

Most children:

  • respond to common words like “no!” and “bye bye”
  • know the names of familiar things, like mama and teddy
  • will show you things to get your attention
  • are starting to use some single words
  • enjoy playing repetitive games like peekaboo with others
  • take turns in conversations with adults by babbling
  • start to show an interest in looking at the pictures in books
  • enjoy listening to songs and nursery rhymes.

If by 12 months your baby isn’t using gestures, sounds, babbles and/or words to try to communicate – especially when they need help or want something – talk to your Plunket nurse, GP, or another health professional.

By age two

Most children:

  • understand instructions with two key words - “please give your plate to daddy”
  • can listen to a simple story
  • use over 50 words
  • are starting to combine words - “go car”, “more water”
  • ask simple questions – “go now?”
  • talk about what they can see and hear right now
  • enjoy pretend play with their toys, like feeding teddy
  • join in with songs/waiata and nursery rhymes with actions
  • enjoy interactive books, like lift-the-flap books
  • can be understood by familiar adults most of the time.

Talk to your Plunket nurse, GP, or another health professional if, by age two, your child:

  • isn’t saying about 50 different words
  • isn’t combining two or more words together
  • only copies words or phrases from others and doesn’t say words spontaneously
  • doesn’t seem to understand simple questions or instructions like “Get your cup”, “Want some apple?” or “Where’s daddy?”

Around one in five two-year-olds will show signs of language delay. These children are often called “late talkers”, and many will catch up as they get older. Some others may continue to have trouble with language.

By age three

Most children:

  • understand instructions with three key words, like “get the spoon and the big cup”
  • use several hundred words, including describing words like “big”, “red” and “little”
  • can combine three or more words into a sentence - “What’s Koro doing?”
  • play imaginative games, like pretending a block is a phone
  • can talk about things that aren’t physically present
  • take an interest in other children’s play and sometimes join in
  • take an interest in playing with words, rhyming words for example
  • are starting to recognise a few letters
  • can be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time.

Talk to your Plunket nurse, GP, or another health professional if, by age three, your child:

  • isn’t asking questions
  • isn’t combining words into longer phrases or sentences
  • doesn’t seem to understand longer instructions or questions, like “what do you want to drink with lunch?” or “put your toys away in the box.”
  • takes little or no interest in books.

If your child is still having trouble with language by the time they start kindergarten/preschool or school, they should see a health professional so they can get support.

By age four

Most children:

  • ask lots of ‘why”, what’, and ‘where’ questions to get new information
  • have longer and more complicated make-believe play sequences, like preparing and having a tea party
  • enjoy simple jokes, even if their jokes don’t make sense!
  • can recognise their own written
  • know some letters
  • can recognise some printed words in their environment, like stop signs
  • are starting to use talking to make friends and to solve problems
  • can talk about what they’ve done and what they might do
  • can be understood by unfamiliar adults almost all of the time. 

By age five

Most children:

  • understand and use more concept words, like ‘tallest’, ‘same’, ‘bigger’, ‘middle’
  • can respond to instructions while they’re busy doing something else
  • normally use complete, well-formed sentences
  • are able to take turns in much longer conversations
  • will ask the meanings of words, and try to use new words
  • are able to retell stories they’ve heard in the right order
  • are able to ask for help appropriately - “please can I have....?”
  • can adapt their talking so the listener can understand, when talking to a baby brother or sister, for example
  • are able to identify first sounds in words - “puku starts with p”
  • are starting to link letter names with letter sounds - 's' = ‘ssss’
  • can recognise some familiar written words
  • can write their own name
  • can be understood by unfamiliar adults all of the time. A few sounds may still be developing, like th, r, l and some consonant blends, like string, cloud, spider, tree.

If a child has a language delay that doesn’t go away, it might be a sign of a developmental language disorder.

Developmental language disorder

Children with a developmental language disorder have trouble understanding and/or speaking, and these difficulties affect their everyday lives.

Children with developmental language disorder:

  • struggle to learn new words and make conversation
  • use short, simple sentences, and often leave out important words in sentences
  • respond to just part of an instruction
  • struggle to use past, present or future tense the right way – for example, they say ‘dance’ instead of ‘danced’ when talking about activities they’ve already done
  • find it hard to use the right words when talking and might use general words like ‘stuff’ or ‘things’ instead
  • might not understand the meaning of words, sentences or stories.

You’re the best judge of your child’s language development. If you’re concerned, seek help. 

Speech development

Speech sounds

Children’s speech generally gets easier to understand as they get older. Speech development can vary across languages. Here’s a guide to how it usually develops.

  • By two years of age children can be understood by familiar adults most of the time.
  • By three years of age children can be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time.
  • By four years of age children can be understood by unfamiliar adults almost all of the time.
  • By five years of age children can be understood by unfamiliar adults all of the time.

If you’re worried about your child’s speech, think about how often someone who doesn’t know your child has trouble understanding them.

Children with speech disorders can understand words and sentences well, and they form sentences correctly – but they’re difficult to understand.

What not to worry about with speech development

Although children might be able to make the right sounds, they might not use them correctly in words in the early years. And while they’re learning to talk, children simplify adult speech to make it easier to say.


Stuttering (also called stammering or dysfluency) is when people seem to get stuck on – or repeat – sounds when talking.

Stuttering can affect people of all ages and cultures, and many children stutter at some point as they learn to talk. It’s more common in boys than girls, and it can run in families.

When children stutter they may:

  • repeat a sound (“p-p-p-please”), a syllable (“to-to-to-tomorrow”) or a word (“my-my-my-my name is”)
  • stretch out a sound (“ssssss- sometimes”)
  • get completely stuck at the start of a word, and no sound comes out.

Stuttering is different for every child. It can:

  • vary depending on the situation – what the child wants to say, who they’re talking to and how they’re feeling.
  • start gradually or suddenly, and may change over time.

Sometimes a child might avoid talking to try to hide stuttering.

If you think your child may be stuttering, or if there is a family and whānau history of stuttering, seek advice from the Ministry of Education as soon as you can.