My Child Understands But Doesn’t Speak – Read This!


“My child understands but doesn’t speak” is a sentence I often heard from parents who brought their child in to see me for a speech and language assessment.

While in most cases this was true (the child understood at an age appropriate level), there were a few children who actually did not understand what they should have.

There are children who are true “late talkers”, meaning that they are developing as expected in every area except for expressive language (spoken language).

But then there are those who do have difficulty understanding, and have fooled their parents, making them think they actually understand more than they do.

When I say “fooled” I don’t meant that your child is doing this intentionally.

Rather, he is using strategies, almost like coping strategies, that help him fit into his surroundings.

Let me explain how a young child can fool a parent into thinking they understand when they are actually struggling.

How A Child Seems To Understand When They Actually Don’t

Making A Choice

When a choice is given the child takes one of the items offered, regardless of wanting it or not.

This leads the parent to believe that the child has understood and made a choice.

In order to see if your child can truly make a choice, pay attention to your wording.  

Many children will choose the last word in the list of choices.

Therefore, make sure you switch the ordering of the choices.  For example, “do you want yogurt or strawberries?”

The child may say strawberries because it is the last word they heard.  If you said “do you want strawberries or yogurt?” and now they choose yogurt, then that is definitely what is going on.

Joint Attention

A child may use joint attention to feign an understanding.

Joint attention is basically sharing attention.

An example is when a parent looks at an object and the child or baby turns to look at the same object.  Children are often assumed to understand more than they do because they are able to use joint attention.

In therapy sessions when I would request a specific item from a child, I would always make sure NOT to look at the one I wanted the child to give to me.

If I said “give me the car” while looking at the car and not the ball, for example, the child would most likely have given me the car because that is the item I was looking at.

17 tips to help toddler with speech delay

Following Routines

Parents often assume that their child is able to follow directions because the child’s teacher has no concerns at school (I am talking about preschoolers or kindergartners).

However, children are quite good at following what the rest of the group is doing.  So if the teacher says “it’s time to clean up and then sit at the carpet”, the child with comprehension (understanding) difficulties will typically wait and see what the others are doing and then follow along.

At home this can happen when a child knows what to expect.

For example, after breakfast he always goes upstairs to get dressed.  So when the parent says “go upstairs to get dressed” and the child goes.

The parent assumes their child has understood the direction.

Parents also often uses gestures and pointing without even realizing it.

So the parent may say “go and get your hat and mitts on” while pointing to their head and hands.  If it’s cold outside, the child will figure out what their parent means.

Use An Object For What It’s Meant To Be Used For

Here is a great example.  Dad says “throw me the ball” and the child throws the ball.

Of course it seems like the child has just followed a direction.

But, that’s what you do with a ball, you throw it.

If dad would have said “sit on the ball” that might have been a different story.

child understands but doesnt speak playing with doll

♥ You Might Also Like: Baby Sign Language Basics – What you need to know! ♥

Prepositions In Directions

This was one that often came up during my years practicing as a speech-language pathologist.

Many times I would ask a parent about their child’s understanding of early prepositions (in, on, off, out, under) and they would tell me they have no concerns as their child follows instructions containing these words at home.

When I asked for an example I would often get an answer like “he throws the dirty napkins in the garbage when asked”.  This is great, but it’s also what you do with a dirty napkin.

If you said to the child “throw the dirty napkin on the garbage” would the child do that?

In my speech therapy sessions I often had kids follow silly directions or directions with objects such as a box and blocks.

This way the child cannot predict what I might ask them to do.  For example, “put the block under the box” or “put the baby (doll) under the bed”.

Another way I would check for comprehension of “in” and “out” was by using a box and blocks or a toy bus (open at the top) with small figurines.

Usually when children are asked to put something “in” or take something “out”, there is only one option and the requested action fits the object being used (e.g. putting something in the garbage that belongs in the garbage).

However, in order to check for true understanding, I would have several blocks around a box as well as 2-3 blocks in the box.

Then I would say to the child “take a block out of the box”.

Many times the child would take all of the blocks that were laying around the box and put them all in.

Parents would stare at me baffled as they thought their child understood these words.

What is the Best toy for language development?

What Does This All Mean?

I am not telling you all of this to scare you or because I think that you should be testing your child.

But, if you have a child over 18 months who is not using words to communicate or using very few words and those words only consist of nouns and a few verbs, don’t assume that your child is understanding everything.

Think of the examples I gave above with regards to your child.  Play some silly games where you ask your child to do something unexpected like “put the dirty napkin under the garbage” and see what happens.

Or try saying “hug the car”, but make sure there is a teddy bear and car near the child.

Keep in mind, that the age of your child will determine whether or not they should be able to follow the directions.

That being said, Kerstin Meints, Kim Plunkett, Paul L. Harris and Debbie Dimmock (2002) found that children as young as 15 months understood the prepositions “in, on, under” in typical situations whereas by 18 months most children understood these same prepositions in atypical situations.

Chances are that when you say “my child understands but doesn’t speak” your child truly does understand, but realize that perhaps there could be more going on.

This is why it is so important to have a speech and language assessment done by a licensed speech-language pathologist rather than just “waiting it out” and hoping for the best.

Be sure to get your child in to see a Speech-Language Pathologist for an assessment if she is over 18 months and is still not using any words (regardless of being able to understand).

In the meantime I highly recommend reading the book “It Takes Two To Talk” by Speech-Language Pathologist Elaine Weitzman.

This book is packed with information including strategies that you can use at home to help your child speak!

Boy playing with blocks with text overlay

child looking ahead with text overlay

12 Comments

  1. Martha Peters

    We are raising our two year old granddaughter who was born about
    5-6 weeks early. Thus far she says these words, apple, ice, baby, bye bye, Bri & who’s that. The phrase who’s that is the first & only phrase she’s said. The other words she says at first over & over then stops as if she isn’t interested. Still says ice, apple, baby. For the correct items. Love to go outside. Will go to glass door, move curtain & start making the sound
    Mmmmmmm or aaaaaaaaa. Knocking on glass door.
    Asking her if she wants to find grandpa she goes looking for him & will go to bedroom door knocking on it.
    I’ll tell her I’m going potty she will stop what she’s doing & go to the bathroom before I get there. If she wants in the fridge she will go to the door & again the sounds are made.
    My husband, her grandfather was a late talker. Our daughter, her mom wasn’t but she had a big sister to follow around. Our granddaughter is in a house of adults. Can’t get her to daycare because we are still in the process of getting custodial guardianship. Which is required for the daycares to accept her. Any opinions, advice is appreciated.

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Martha,

      Thanks for sharing! It definitely sounds like she understands but is struggling to express herself? Have you tried sign language?

      I also strongly recommend having her assessed by a registered Speech-Language Pathologist as it is hard to determine if she is a late talker or if there is something else going on.

      It could also be because she was born prematurely.

      This is something a professional will be able to help you with.

      Best of luck and let me know if you have any other questions.

      Reply
  2. Gnekoda

    Hello Tanya,

    I’m doing a research about ASD for myself and I crossed your post. And you just give me more evidence.

    When a young child listens to parent’s words, but they somehow don’t respond back or or don’t really react, it could be a hearing problem.  Or it could be the language, speech problems like you said since it’s your profession. 

    And I don’t dare to cross over you because you have the license and knowledge. I just research some information only.

    Therefore, as you describe, if the child has some behavior like that, should parents inform with the family doctor and then go to you for M-CHAT R/F or well-baby checkup?

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Gnekoda,

      You are correct, there could be a hearing problem when a child doesn’t react to a sound or has difficulty following directions.  This can easily be ruled out by a visit to an Audiologist.

      Speech language pathologists often recommend a full audiological evaluation if a hearing loss is suspected.

      However, as I mentioned in the article it can also be a receptive language delay.  And this can be harder to figure out since kids are really good at using strategies which make an outsider think they understand (and hear) everything.

      If a parent is concerned they can ask their doctor or at a well baby checkup.  Or they can go directly to a speech language pathologist!

      Reply
  3. DorcasW

    Hi Tanya

    Thanks for sharing this insightful article.  Many parents believe that they love their child too much to accept the facts about them.

    It can be very difficult for parents to hear the truth about their child. 

    If they use the time spent with their child wisely, they will accept the term that ‘it takes two to talk.’

    Is there any treatment for child who isn’t speaking to develop understanding?

    Keep up your good work

    dorcasW

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Dorcas.

      Yes, speech therapy or in some cases just some guidance from a speech pathologist will help a child develop receptive language skills!

      Reply
  4. Mommy

    Hi Tanya,
    I found your web page today and I think it is fantastic!. I live in USA and today I requested an evaluation from a speech pathologist. My almost 4 years old (in 2 months) can speak in both languages, Spanish and English, but like a 3 years old. When I say he can speak I meant that he can do it in short sentences (4 or 5 words), sometimes with verbs, sometimes with articles (Spanish) and good pronunciation. He doesn’t elaborate complex sentences and I definitely identified that there are things that he doesn’t understand like “under” or “how” or “why”. He’s improving everyday even not being in a preschool, no siblings/family around or been exposed too often in social activities. When I noticed a couple months ago that his sentences where too short for his age, I started at home speaking more, reading and talking to him strategically thinking in the way we were talking to him. He always listened us saying “mami” and “Daddy” this or that and referring to him by his name. I think almost never we said “I”, “You”, “We”, etc. So the last month he started speaking a lot more, really fast in fact, but we noticed that he was confusing “I” and “you” and many times referring himself in third person. Now it seems that he’s getting the concepts because he’s using the pronouns correctly most of the times (in both languages) but even though we started the evaluation process because I’m not comfortable that at almost 4 years old he doesn’t have the appropriate language and comprehension for his age.
    I’m going to try one of your examples as well.
    Many people including the pediatrician tell me that he’s a “late talker”, but I don’t want to “guess”. What do you think?

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi,

      I applaud you for requesting a speech-language evaluation for your son despite being told not to worry. It sounds like there could be a few things going on and it would be best to seek the advice of a speech-language pathologist. I would suggest trying to find one that is bilingual (Spanish and English) so that both languages can be assessed.

      Have you considered enrolling him in a playgroup so he can gain some social and language skills by being around other children? It does not need to be daily, but perhaps a few mornings/afternoons a week.

      You are doing many things that will help his language development. Continue to model grammatically correct sentences in both languages, including using correct pronouns.

      Please take a look at the article I wrote about “late talkers” (if you haven’t already done so). I am sure this will make you feel good about your decision to have your son seen by a speech pathologist!

      Best of luck!

      Reply
      1. Mommy

        Thank you Tanya!
        Yes, we’re planning to enroll him next month in a pre-school. He went to a Spring Camp for one week and he did it great following instructions, doing activities, playing with other kids, etc.
        Thank you for your response!. I really appreciate it.

        Reply
        1. Tanya (Post author)

          You’re welcome! I think you will notice a big change in his language once he starts preschool.

          But make sure to still have him seen by a speech-language pathologist!

          If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

          Reply
  5. Liz

    That was really interesting and very useful to know! My daughter is nearly 22 months and I absolutely have assumed she understands everything…until now!! She is a real talker though, so I think we are good, but I must admit I am wondering if she understands under and over now.
    In general, do you think it is a good idea to go to a speech pathologist as a general check up at a certain age just to make sure everything is fine even if you think everything is ok? There does not seem to be anything routine here in Australia except for maternal child health nurse visits at certain age milestones, and they don’t seem to be overly comprehensive. What do you think?

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Liz,

      I would assume that your daughter is following along the developmental milestones as expected. Chances are she is understanding (especially if she is talking a lot).

      I don’t typically recommend going to a speech pathologist for a “check up” unless there are any red flags. I am in Canada and we don’t have child health nurse visits here. Most family Dr’s will see a child for regular check ups from birth until the age of 3, however some only do these regular checks until 18 months or 2.

      I wouldn’t worry in your case!

      Reply

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