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


  1. Stuti

    Hi Tanya,
    This is Stuti, mom of a 2.7 year old boy. My son can speak dada, Dadi, Chachi,hello, papa, mummas, Nana, mama, Babu, two, three, crow, ball, tweety and few more words. He knows all his body parts including tough ones like elbows, shoulders and knees. Turns around when I ask him to do so, when I ask him to do hands up, finger on your lips, sit down, stand up, go and keep this in the drawer, go get the cloth from kitchen, what do you say when you want milk, he says milk in Hindi. He attempts to say thank you when asked understands sorry. But he doesn’t always call me mummas. He calls me by anything. He babbles a lot and explains everything what he wants to do by babbling and pointing it out. Also he is not fussy about any food or while going to the toilet. He keeps eye contact with me always, but when I ask him to say something which he can’t he moves away or turns his head or says smilingly aaaaaaa….He has learned to say no. When I ask him to eat something extra even after his tummy is full he says no. He understands simple as well as complex directions. He doesn’t get cranky unless his routine is changed. He identifies alphabets from A to I which has been taught in school. Identifies colors and few shapes that too which is taught in school. He waves at known people while going out of house. He likes to see kids playing but doesn’t go easily towards them to play. But runs behind them if sees the elder kids cycling or running.
    I am making him learn at least 1 new word everyday. He sometimes uses them sometimes doesn’t. I am worried a lot about what should I do.

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Stuti,

      Thank you for your comment. From what you have said it does not sound like your son has any issues with hearing so this is most likely an expressive language delay. The best thing you can do is get him set up with a speech-language pathologist who can do a thorough assessment of his language abilities. If you have private insurance coverage it will be quicker to go that route. But if you don’t then you will need to go the public route through early intervention services. If you can tell me where you are located I can try to give you more specific information. You can also ask your family dr how to proceed.

      Here are some articles that may be useful in the meantime:
      17 Tips To Help A Toddler With A Speech Delay
      Straightforward Speech Therapy Activities For Toddlers You Can Do At Home

  2. Amber

    Hi, Tanya.

    Thank you for this great article! It is full of very useful information. My son babbled as a baby and could say “Daddy,” “Hi,” and “Sissy” around 14 months old. The only word he used in context was “daddy” and repeated the others. He’s currently 21 months old. He has progressively become less vocal. He doesn’t imitate words anymore and doesn’t babble. He uses inflection when he grunts or squeals but doesn’t “speak.” He makes no consonant sounds. He points at things he wants. If he wants me to do something (like open the blinds) he makes it known (like banging the blinds until i open them). Seemingly, he can hear. He’s a light sleeper and wakes easily with noise. He goes to the refrigerator when I ask “do you want milk?” and goes to the bathroom when we ask if he wants a bath. If I ask him where something (like his cup or shoe) is or tell him to go get something, he’ll find it and bring it to me. He doesn’t always respond to loud noises like a high pitched bell or a loud bang. He’s had several ear infections but never enough to get tubes or for any major intervention.

    I contacted our state early intervention program for an evaluation and are waiting on that. I don’t really know what to expect with the evaluation. What do you think?

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Amber,

      Sorry to hear your son is struggling with his expressive language. It’s great that you have him on a waiting list for early intervention. From what you have said I would strongly recommend him seeing a pediatric audiologist to rule out any hearing issues. A small amount of fluid may be present in his ears which can be enough to muffle some of the high frequency sounds. You might be interested in reading Ear Tubes For Children – What You Need To Know!

      As for the evaluation, the speech therapist will most likely play with your son. Speech and language assessments for children under 3 are typically play based and many therapists stay away from standardized testing as it often doesn’t give a good picture of what is going on. The therapist will also speak with you for more information.

      If you have private insurance coverage I would recommend having him seen privately to start so that you don’t have to wait as long. Unless you were told the wait time was reasonable. Here is a link to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Associations Find a Professional website

      Let me know if I can answer any other questions you many have.

  3. Austin

    Hi Tanya,

    Our son turned 2 in April, and we’re started to get concerned, think he may have expressive language delay. He “understands” quite a bit; I quote the word because now it’s a bit hard to tell after reading your post. When we ask him questions about wanted to take a show, being hungry, wanting a banana or grapes, wanting to go a walk, or swim, etc… he responds to all of them. Sometimes he may not say no, but he wont show interest either. When he was young, we started with signing. He can do “more”, “bottle” (which he uses for any kind of drink now), “thank you”, he can do some others but not very accurately. He also says words, but not many. Mama, Papa, Dada, bye bye. Words he can kind of say are “more” when we ask him to (cuz he will sign it), bubble, truck, car, and some others I’m missing right now. He also makes a lot of sounds for things he clearly knows what they are. We have cards with pictures that we will throw on the floor and ask him to find, and he get’s almost all of them. Things like fire truck, zebra, ball, soccer ball, clock, frog, house, leaf, sheep, etc; A whole mix of things. The talking he just seems uninterested in doing, or he just can’t do if he has this delay. If I try to get him to say something and he can’t, he will get frustrated and upset, then walk away because I’ve pushed to much. We’re not sure what to do. Should we get him assessed? Wait a bit longer and just use some of these links you’ve shared in other posts to do speech therapy at home? I’m fairly certain he understand (or maybe hopeful because I’m a parent), but I’ve said whole sentences to him without thinking what I’m saying, then afterwards I tell myself “why did I just say that? He has no idea what I just said.”, but then he’ll immediately respond non-verbally by going and do the action I asked, or what have you.

    1. Austin

      I forgot to mention some other things he points at or “signs”. He knows a lot of parts on his body (hair, eyes, nose, lips, teeth, tongue, belly button, hands, feet). He also “signs” cold, airplane, wind. Oh yeah, he can also say “hot” when food/drink is warm/hot to him.

    2. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Austin,

      Based on all of the information you have provided it does not sound like there is a receptive delay. He is most likely a late talker, but that being said I still strongly recommend having him assessed by a speech language pathologist. Is he able to imitate sounds and sound combinations, for example if you say “Dada” will he try to repeat it? There are many different reasons as to why he may not be speaking at the level he should be and the only way to figure out what that might be is to have him assessed by a speech-language pathologist. If you have private insurance coverage there is a good chance a part of most of the fee would be covered. You can also go the publicly funded route, but you may have to wait several months.

      Wishing you and your son all the best!

      1. Austin

        Thanks for such a quick response! Unfortunately, I don’t believe our insurance covers a speech pathologist (I work at a startup, so insurance is on the lower end). Sometimes he will try to mimic and he will get the sounds almost correct, other times he’s way off. But when sometimes when he’s way off, I really feel like he’s just not interested or he might even just ignore us. He just wants to sign, as if it’s easier. He’s recently started creating his own signs instead. I’ll ask him to say “run”, and he’ll move his arms really fast. I’m going to look into the cost of assessment at a place nearby, so we’ll see how that goes. I also didn’t realize there was a publicly funded route, so I can check that out as well. We are going to start enunciating more, reading more books like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear”, do the Mr. Potato head thing, and we’re also working with in/out, on/under with things that typically wouldn’t work (like asking him to put a book under his blanket). But, my MAIN concern was if there was something wrong with the brain, the part that handles converting thoughts to speech.

        1. Tanya (Post author)

          Definitely look into publicly funded services because it is important to have a proper assessment done to figure out what may be causing his inability to produce words. It’s great that he is finding ways to communicate. When he signs, make sure to repeat what he is signing or what you think he is signing in words so he is always hearing spoken language. Let me know if you need any help trying to figure out how to access public funding for speech and language services. I am not 100% sure I will be able to help but I can try.

  4. Akosua Ofori-Attah

    Hi tanya,thanks for the useful information. My son is nearly 3 and used to say words like who did that,I want this,mummy come when he was 2.Then I had another child few months after he turned 2 and all of a sudden he stopped using his words and started crying most of the time.He can still call me and daddy but his attention is quiet worrying. I took him to see SLT and he’s on waiting list.Is there something I can do to help?

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi there,

      I would also suggest talking to your family Dr. about this and consider taking your son to a developmental pediatrician to make sure there is nothing else going on. It is not uncommon for children to lose some words they have previously spoken when they go through growth spurts or are learning new skills. However, this would typically resolve on it’s own in about a month or so. Has your son had many ear infections? Has his hearing been checked? Fluid in the ear can cause a mild to moderate hearing loss which can make it difficult to speak when a child is young.

      I wish I could provide you with answers but that is difficult to do without having actually met your son.

      Wishing you all the best!

  5. kellt

    My daughter is almost 5 she can not say any words not even ma. She can identify numbers, letters, shapes and colors she can follow directions. However nobody can seem to tell me why she has such a severe speech delay. She recieves speech therapy 3 times a week at head start. But all she does is grunt makes sounds and signs.

    1. Tanya (Post author)


      I’m sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling with her expressive language. Has the speech pathologist that is working with her given any indication at the lack of progress? There are several reasons why she may not be communicating with words, but I cannot say what these might be without knowing her. Can she imitate words and sounds? Has she ever said words and then stopped?

  6. Tamea


    My grandson will be 3 next month. He doesn’t talk but he makes sounds. When he watches a movie you know he knows what is going on by the pitches he makes. The other way he communicates his needs is by bringing you his cup if he is thirsty, he will push you in a forward motion if he wants you to go somewhere with him. He understands commands but if its not something he wants he will scream and cry. He hasn’t been diagnosed with autism but the doctor said he is showing signs of it. He also had a speech therapist but he didn’t like her and every session was a disaster because he would cry.

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Tamea,

      It is not uncommon for a child like your grandson to cry during speech therapy sessions. Do not give up on speech therapy. It will be challenging with anyone at first because he will be asked to do non preferred tasks. This is completely normal. I am not sure where you are but there are many early intervention programs available in Canada and the US that you can look into. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  7. Elle

    Hi Tanya

    I have a three old boy who is a late talker. We started to get concerned soon after his 2nd birthday when he wasn’t talking maybe having 10 words max. He has had a number of speech and language assessments since then and have been taking him to private sppech therapy for over 9 months. Have been told most likely an expressive language delay. He has attended a creche since he was a 1yr and started in their montesorri class in July. We have availed of extra support for him, so there is an extra person in the room so they can work in smaller groups with him. He is doing well, very happy there, plays with other children and attempts to join in with circle time songs and actions. He just doesn’t seem to be progressing with his speech though. He understands and follows instructions and will say 1, 2 or 3 word phrases randomly. His favourites are no mummy, no its mine or bye bye. He is a really loving good natured boy who loves to give hugs and kisses. However he does through tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants.we are tryjng to talk to him as much whilst doing day to day things but not sure what else to do. Going to continue with speech and language therapy but not sure if is helping. Do you have any advise on what else we can do? My gut tells me he is fine developmentally except for his speech.

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Elle,

      From what you have said it does sound like an expressive language delay. I would definitely continue with the speech therapy. In some cases it can take years of therapy.

      Is your son able to repeat sounds and words?

      The best person to ask about the lack of progress would be the speech-language pathologist.

      I’m sorry I can’t give you more information than that.

      I can share with you some articles I have written with tips for promoting language development.

      It sounds like you are probably already doing many of these things but I will share anyway.

      Straightforward Speech Therapy Activities For Toddlers You Can Do At Home

      17 Tips To Help A Toddler With A Speech Delay

      13 Ways Mr Potato Head Helps To Foster Toddler Development

      Let me know if you have any other questions.

      1. Elle

        Thanks Tanya will keep going with slt. He can repeat sounds and words but not always when prompted to do so more when it’s on his terms or when he is interested in something. He knows animal sounds and will repeat words when it sounds fun…like yucky or yummy. I guess it is a waiting game. Thanks for your help.

        1. Tanya (Post author)

          I know it’s frustrating Elle! Just keep talking to his speech therapist about your concerns. There are many reasons for a language delay and a speech language pathologist is the best person to help figure out the best treatment.

  8. 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.

    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.

  9. 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?

    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!

  10. 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


    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!

  11. 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?

    1. Tanya (Post author)


      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!

      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.

        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.

  12. 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?

    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!


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