Author: Annie NG
Speech and Language Therapist
It usually takes around a year for a typically-developing child to say their first word (and it may take longer if they are exposed to multiple languages at home). Talking is a big milestone in a child’s development. While the focus is often on the teaching of words, there are a few foundational skills that cannot be neglected.
During that first year of life, before words emerge, children need to acquire a set of ‘pre-talking skills’ in order to be ready to use words. These are called preverbal skills. They are the prerequisite for independent word use and you can start working on these from birth.
There are eleven preverbal skills. They are listed below in the sequence of development.
- Consistently responding to things perceived through their senses, e.g. things seen, heard and felt. A child’s responses might be obvious, e.g. laughing or making noises, but they might also be subtle at times, e.g. an eye blink or a head tilt. As you play with your child, think about how to engage them through their senses and observe their reactions.
- Responding to you and to others in an interaction. This is a sign that your child enjoys interacting with others, which is crucial for communication development. We want to foster an intrinsic desire in children to interact with us. Whilst your child may not understand what you are actually saying, they still have the capacity to engage with you and to find the interaction pleasant. A great strategy is to choose objects, games and sounds your child finds interesting!
- Taking turns with you in play and in other interactions. This kind of turn-taking mimics the turns we take in conversations. At home, find a toy that has many parts or pieces, and take turns placing them with your child. Another way is to take turns rolling a ball back-and-forth. You can label each turn by saying, ‘David’s turn/ Daddy’s turn/ Mummy’s turn’. Do this consistently until your child becomes familiar with turn-taking.
- Sustaining attention for a longer period of time. Being able to attend to someone for an extended period of time is key to acquiring language. Each child’s capacity to focus differs greatly, so rather than a specific number of minutes, look for a general progression in their attention span. Children need a lot of support from us to maintain their attention. So limit screen time and make use of their interests, e.g. if they like to move around, use that to engage them. If they like to play with dolls, incorporate that. When your child wants to end an activity, challenge them to extend their attention by encouraging them to do ‘one more’.
- Shifting attention and demonstrating joint attention with others. This means that when you are playing with a toy with your child, they are able to shift their attention between you and the toy. In play, create opportunities for your child to look at you (rather than just looking at the toy). Another way to help your child is to use pointing frequently throughout the day to show them what you are noticing and what you are talking about.
- Playing with a variety of toys appropriately. Play is how children learn, so it is important that they know how to play with toys. In the first few months, babies tend to just put everything in their mouths. That is how they play and learn in the first months. But as they get older, they learn to play with toys the way they are designed to be played, e.g. a ball is for rolling and tossing, and a car is for pushing. At home, expose your child with a wide range of toys and objects to play with. Remember, they do not have to ‘look like a toy’ to be a toy. Play with them and show them how to manipulate a new toy or show them how to play an old toy in new ways.
- Understanding early words and following simple directions. A child must first understand words before they can use them. When completing daily routines, try to always talk your child through the steps, e.g. when washing their hands, you can say, ‘Tap on. Rinse. Get some soap. Rub rub rub.’ In play, pair actions with words. Keep your language simple and short, so your child has a better chance of understanding the words you are using.
- Vocalizing or making sounds for communicative purposes. Using sounds intentionally is a prerequisite for speaking. At this stage, even though your child has no real words yet, they are already showing a desire to communicate and to be heard. This is a huge moment! Encourage this skill by making silly sounds, copying your child’s sounds and responding to as many of your child’s communicative attempts as possible.
- Imitating actions, gestures, sounds and words. Before imitating words, children need to be able to imitate actions, gestures and sounds (in this sequence). So incorporate these imitation opportunities in play. Copying your child (instead of getting your child to copy you) can be a good start.
- Using early gestures like pointing and waving. Gestures are great nonverbal communication tools, and they are acquired before words in typically-developing children. At home, incorporate the use of these early gestures in meaningful and engaging ways. You don’t necessarily have to take your child’s hand to imitate the same gesture. Children often like to observe until they are ready to give it a go one day.
- Initiating interactions with others. In other words, your child is not just responding to your initiations, but is now actively trying to get what they want, e.g. asking to go outside or to get a snack. Part of being a good communicator is being able to initiate an interaction. So by this stage of development, we should expect children to initiate more frequently instead of passively waiting for something to happen. To facilitate this at home, create opportunities for your child to make requests in play and within their routines. You might have to modify their access to some things, so they are set up to make requests, e.g. putting a frequently played toy in a container they need help opening.
Get your child ready to talk by working on these preverbal skills early. If your child has difficulties learning these skills, consult a speech therapist as soon as possible.