Late talking: Comprehension can also be delayed


Late talking & comprehension delay

Late talking affects approximately 10-20% of toddlers. This rate rises to about 16-17.5% in children between 30-36 months of age.
(Rescorla, 1989; Rescorla & Alley, 2001; Roulstone et al., 2002; Zubrick et al., 2007; Horowitz et al., 2003; Rescorla & Achenbach, 2002).

Late talking & comprehension (understanding of language)?

Comprehension is also known as a “receptive language”. This refers to what we understand, the word meanings and concepts we know, and the processing of what others say to us through non-verbal or verbal means.

In my experience, I hear many parents & health professionals say

“my child is late to talk BUT they understand everything”.

Often, difficulties in receptive language are disregarded and not seen as a priority. Many parents and professionals can get super focused on what a child can and can’t say, and miss what they cannot understand.

More about the two domains of language here

What the research says:

Based on many longitudinal and cohort studies, researchers have found that late talking children are more likely to:

  • Have delayed comprehension and use of symbolic gestures for communication (Thal et al., 2013);
  • Use of shorter and less grammatically complex utterances—particularly for toddlers with expressive and receptive delays (Thal et al., 2013)
  • Have an understanding of fewer words – aka poor receptive vocabulary (Thal et al., 2013, 1991).

Let’s be honest: Late talkers are likely to have delayed comprehension

Late talking toddlers don’t say much but are also very likely to not understand much either. Don’t just focus on their output (expressive language). Also equally focus on helping a late talker understand what words mean and to comprehend the world around them.

Your child must understand the meaning behind a word in context before they can use that word to communicate!

Understanding what others say is an essential part of everyday life. So it should be one of your top priorities to improve your child’s ability to link meaning to words.

Want to know what concepts to teach your child in order to improve their receptive vocabulary? Read more

There will be variation amongst late talking toddlers

As with all developmental areas, there will be natural variation amongst children – regardless of whether they are deemed typically developing or have late talking.

Below are some indications of delayed receptive language below.

  • Cannot respond to their name consistently
  • Difficulty with turning their head toward parents when asked “Where’s mum”, “show me dad”.
  • Cannot point or touch items that are named, when amongst a group of objects in reach – e.g. “where’s the cup” or “find the block’.
  • Has difficulty responding appropriately to the instruction – “give me the ball”
  • Difficulty pointing/touching to body parts upon request – e.g. “where is your nose/legs/ears”.
  • Difficulty bringing your familiar items that are in the distance or in another room – e.g. “go get your hat”.
  • Doesn’t respond by moving to the appropriate place when you say things such as “bath time now”, “time to take doggie for a walk” or “Are you hungry”.

Note: By 15 to 17 months of age, a child should be able to perform these tasks listed above quite consistently. If they don’t, then it is highly likely they have a significant receptive language delay.

Read more about receptive language here

Free handout – comprehension milestones

Late talking - Comprehension milestones
Download here


Horowitz, S. M., Irwin, J. R., Briggs-Gowan, M. J., Bosson Heenan, J. M., Medoza, J., & Carter, A. S. (2003). Language delay in a community cohort of young children. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(8), 932–940.

Rescorla, L. A. (1989). The Language Development Survey: A screening tool for delayed language in toddlers. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 54(4), 587–599.

Rescorla, L. A., & Alley, A. (2001). Validation of the Language Development Survey (LDS): A parent report tool for identifying language delay in toddlers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44(2), 434–445.

Roulstone, S., Loader, S., Northstone, K., Beveridge, M., & the ALSPAC team. (2002). The speech and language of children aged 25 months: Descriptive data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Early Child Development and Care, 172(3), 259–268.

Thal, D. J., Marchman, V. A., & Tomblin, J. B. (2013). Late-talking toddlers: Characterization and prediction of continued delay. In L. A. Rescorla & P. S. Dale (Eds.), Late talkers: Language development, interventions, and outcomes (pp. 169–201). Brookes.

Thal, D. J., Tobias, S., & Morrison, D. (1991). Language and gesture in late talkers: A 1-year follow-up. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 34(3), 604–612.

Zubrick, S. R., Taylor, C. L., Rice, M. L., & Slegers, D. W. (2007). Late language emergence at 24 months: An epidemiological study of prevalence, predictors, and covariates. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50(6), 1562–1592.


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