029: Speech Development and Literacy Skills with Denise Wagstaff

Published by This Indulgent Life on

Denise Wagstaff is here to teach us the critical skills to literacy development that is often overlooked when teaching children how to read. She also shares some fun and engaging activities parents can do with their kids to develop or strengthen these skills of phonological awareness and speech!

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Who is Denise Wagstaff?

Denise is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist with over 25 years of experience working with children and their families. She also offers accent modification training, but her “mom-heart” really thrives when helping parents improve their skills so they can maximize the quality of their children’s speech, language and literacy skills. Denise grew up in New York City but lives in Toronto, Ontario with her Canadian husband of 31 years. Together they’ve raised two sons and get a kick out traveling whenever they can!

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Give your child the step up they need in learning to read and write by making sure they have hit these speech and language milestones. From Speech Language Pathologist, Denise Wagstaff during the Calm & Centered Parenting and Education Summit | #earlyliteracy #developinglanguage #speechmilestones #speechgames #buildingvocabulary #phonologicalawareness #dyslexia

The Difference Between Speech and Language:

There are differences between speech and language. Think of them as two separate areas, even though of course, they’re all intertwined.


Speech has to do with the sounds that are in the words. So if a child is having a hard time with speech development, or speech sound development, you might see either they don’t say the sounds that you would expect them to say, for a child their age. Either they’re making substitutions, leaving out the sounds, or they can’t get the sound sequence in the order that they’re supposed to be in to make a word clear.

So all of these different things fit into the speech category. Let’s say Johnny has a speech problem, you might see substitutes like, wed for red or walk for milk.


 Language has two parts that we need understand; receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive Language

When you think of receptive language you think of receiving, and that’s the information that you’re able to understand coming from someone else.

So if somebody is having a receptive language problem, you might see maybe they don’t understand the directions that you would expect a child that age to understand.

You might say, “it’s time to go, go get your shoes and put your coat on”, and they may not be able to follow that. Or they might not know the vocabulary that you would expect them to understand at their age. Or they might not understand grammar forms that you would expect, like a plural s, or like a past tense Ed. For example, we walked yesterday, they might not understand that you’re talking about something that already happened.

A little receptive language test:

One little quick, fun way to kind of test this is to give them a direction. But be really careful about giving them any other extra information. So don’t be gesturing, looking towards whatever it is you’re referring to, or any other non-verbal communication.

A lot of times when a receptive language thing is going on, it’s not always obvious, because we have so many other aspects of communication that come into play. When we are talking we aren’t just speaking words. We’re gesturing. We’re looking at it. We even use our routines that have all this information embedded right within it to know what’s coming without any words.

So To make sure that our children are really understanding, you want to give them a little bit of a task that is something you know they’re familiar with, but it’s out of routine. This is one way to get an idea of if your child is really understanding the language. Or are they relying on the other cues?

Don’t forget to check out my interview with Sue Patterson on finding how learning is integrated into life.

Expressive Language

 Expressive language is how you make your wants and needs known to other people.

So you want to be able to see that a child can know the vocabulary, that you would expect them to know at their age. That they can put together a string of words appropriate to their age.

For example; a one-year-old child should have maybe about 10 words. They don’t put them together yet, but they have about 10 words. It may not be perfect, it may not be perfectly clear, but if they’re using the same thing, consistently for that item every time we can count that as a word.

From there the easiest way to remember is one year- one word, two years-, two words, three years- three words, four years-four words, you want to see that length of their phrases and sentences getting longer as they grow.

For their vocabulary, a year old will have about 10 words. Then at two-years-old, they will have about 300 words in their vocabulary. A three-year-old will have about 1000 words. And then at four to five years, you see about 1500 words. So you’ll see big jump between two and three with the numbers will just explode in terms of the vocabulary if their expressive language is growing well.

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Why Parents Need To Understand These Different Aspects of Langauge:

A lot of times when a child is having a hard time learning to read, we can see a lot of signs early on. Parents have to really be aware of the speech sound development that they should see so they can intervene as early as possible.

Working on Phonological Awareness to Improve Literacy:

Phonology has to do with the sounds that are in the words. And if you have a problem with your speech or language then you’re going to have a hard time hearing individual sounds within a word. And if that area is weak, reading can really be a challenge.

Hierarchy of Phonology:

There is a hierarchy when it comes to phonology. And at the top is individual sounds. When the child can’t hear these separate pieces. When they only know the sound as a unit, we realize they’re not really getting all those individual pieces. So imagine you’re trying to spell a word, and you don’t get that there’s individual pieces in that. If I can’t break it apart, how am I going to spell that? How do I understand that it’s made a pieces? I don’t, I don’t get it. So this is why phonological awareness is such an important critical skill.

  1. The First-tier of the hierarchy that we see is that we’re able to recognize what a word is. So they realize if I say, cup, that little unit of that cup it or mug it refers to the physical object of the cup.
  2. The next level is when they start to realize that the word table is made up of chunks. Tei and ble. They learn these syllables and they can be separated.
  3. The highest level is is what we call phoneme awareness, a sound. It’s when they have awareness and can identify each individual sound of a word T-AY-B-L
"Don't be afraid of being repetitive with new vocabulary that's how our kids will learn" From Speech Language Pathologist, Denise Wagstaff during the Calm & Centered Parenting and Education Summit | #earlyliteracy #developinglanguage #speechmilestones #speechgames #buildingvocabulary #phonologicalawareness #dyslexia

Important milestones in phonological awareness:

It’s important to practice these skills with your child from a young age so you can identify when or if they’re struggling and get them help.

By about four years old, a child should be able to recognize a rhyme. That they can hear that lake and rake sound the same.

Around five years old a child should be able to make a riddle or a silly rhyming game. For example, bake a cake and make a lake.

Because that idea, phonological awareness and phonological skills, is about hearing those individual sounds. When you realize that rhyme is all about this little piece of the beginning is going to change. That you put something else in at the end and the rest stays the same. It’s about that individual sound. And that when we change it, it changes the meaning completely. So when we’re trying to teach our children to read, we want to make sure that they have that ability that they have that skill.

Games & Ideas To Build Phonological Skills and Literacy Skills:

  1. As you read to your child point to the individual words and even the spaces. Then have them point to the words as you read. Help them see that you’re making a sound or a pause and that is how it’s represented visually.
  2. Make a grab bag. Fill it with random objects and little toys. Then pull one out and model saying what you got. “I got turtle, now what did you get?” “I got cars.” From there you can add adjectives, plurals, and so on, building up their ability to describe and string words together. Start where your child is. If your child is only 1 and using one word then don’t try and go for three-word phrases, they’re not ready, but you can use this to build up to it.
  3. Put outlines on the ground. Could be tape squares, twig squares, side-walk chalk, whatever you can use to create a visual “container”. Then as you say a sentence they hop to the next square for each word. Then you could take this same idea and use it for syllables and individual sounds. Building up that hierarchy.
  4. To build word awareness you can take a ball and roll it back and forth for each word.
  5. Separate the sounds of the word using small objects like marbles or paper clips. You could draw three circles and as each sound is made in the word ‘dog’ you fill the circle and have the child echo the sound. Say it’s a word with two of the same sounds you can use the same color paperclip for that sound so pop might be yellow, blue, yellow so they can see it’s the same sound at the beginning and the end. Hint- you can do this with lego blocks too.
  6. Play the echo game. Make a sound and have your child repeat and then build up the number of sounds they have to remember and repeat.
  7. Talk about everything. Describe everything. Fill your child’s live with language.

You can find Denise Wagstaff here:

Tired of boring worksheets? Here are  some multi-sensory and kinesthetic activities to help develop language and build early literacy skills. From Speech Language Pathologist, Denise Wagstaff during the Calm & Centered Parenting and Education Summit | #earlyliteracy #developinglanguage #speechmilestones #speechgames #buildingvocabulary #phonologicalawareness #dyslexia
Learn to identify problems with your child's phonological awareness now so you can help them develop those early literacy skills! From Speech Language Pathologist, Denise Wagstaff during the Calm & Centered Parenting and Education Summit | #earlyliteracy #developinglanguage #speechmilestones #speechgames #buildingvocabulary #phonologicalawareness #dyslexia
Learn the difference between speech and language and how that plays into your child's ability to read. Learn 7 engaging activities to strengthen their phonological awareness. From Speech Language Pathologist, Denise Wagstaff during the Calm & Centered Parenting and Education Summit | #earlyliteracy #developinglanguage #speechmilestones #speechgames #buildingvocabulary #phonologicalawareness #dyslexia


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