When we think of a toddler learning to speak, we expect it as a natural outcome in development, yet we often do not consider the skills they must learn before words are expected. From birth, children are learning and processing information around them. What they see, hear, feel (touch) are the foundations for developing words. To be more specific, there are 11 prerequisite skills parents should pay close attention to in their child’s development as these skills are important for developing verbal communication. These skills are called pre-linguistic skills. Kid Sense describes pre-linguistic skills as ways in which we communicate without words, including gestures, facial expressions, imitation, joint attention and eye-contact. These are the skills that set children up to be ready to talk and communicate.
When working with children who are delayed in communication, we must meet them where they are and address their current needs at the foundation and build upon the skills they’ve mastered. Let’s take a deeper dive into skills children should be demonstrating with independence before we expect them to verbally communicate:
1. Reacts to events in the environment
What does it look like: Child consistently reacts to things he sees, hears, and feels.
Why is it important: Responding is the foundation for interacting and communicating.
2. Responds to people when they talk to or play with him or her
What does it look like: Child enjoys being around other people and responds to them consistently.
Why is it important: Communicating always involves at least two people. When kids don’t respond, it’s one-sided.
3. Takes turns with you during interactions
What does it look like: Child participates in extended back & forth exchanges with others.
Why is it important: Turn taking is how all of us become interactive and conversational.
4. Develops a longer attention span
What does it look like: Child stays with an activity for at least 5 minutes alone and even longer with adults.
Why is it important: Attention is the “gatekeeper” for learning anything new, especially language.
5. Shifts and shares joint attention with others
What does it look like: Child shifts his attention between an object and you while you’re sharing the same focus.
Why is it important: Kids learn to understand words and talk by listening to the important things other people want to share.
6. Plays with a variety of toys appropriately
What does it look like: Child plays well with many different toys and uses familiar objects in everyday routines.
Why is it important: Children learn almost everything through playing. When they don’t, they miss opportunities for language.
7. Understands early words and follows simple directions
What does it look like: Child completes many different requests consistently.
Why is it important: A child must understand words before he or she can use those words to talk and communicate.
8. Vocalizes or makes sounds purposefully
What does it look like: Child is noisy and gets your attention by using his or her voice.
Why is it important: No one learns to talk until he or she can produce sounds intentionally.
9. Imitates actions, gestures, sounds, and words
What does it look like: Child copies what he sees and hears other people do and say.
Why is it important: Toddlers learn to talk by repeating what other people say.
10. Uses early gestures like waving and pointing
What does it look like: Child communicates with you nonverbally.
Why is it important: In typical development, gestures emerge just before toddlers begin to say words.
11. Initiates interaction with others to get needs met or to play
What does it look like: Child deliberately works to get your attention to meet his or her needs.
Why is it important: We can’t depend on other people to approach us or know what we want.
Now that you are knowledgeable about the skills children need to master before the development of words, I’m sure you are wondering how do you help your child work on these skills? Laura Mize of Teach Me to Talk created a handout that outlines all the information above and includes beginning strategies of functional ways parents can begin to elicit these skills.
If you’d like to take your learning a bit further, download A Parent Guide for Understanding Speech and Language Development, which contains a parent-friendly breakdown of the language development skills your child should demonstrate by their specific age. If you’re concerned your child may have a delay, parents should start at their child’s current age and check off all the skills their child is successful in doing with minimal to no assistance. Determine your child’s foundational abilities by moving backward within the specific skill and age. Once you reach an age where the child has mastered 80% of the skills, start there to determine what skills your child does not independently demonstrate, and provide instruction in that area. If you are having trouble determining where your child falls in development or what you can do to help them, this is a great opportunity to seek the assistance of a speech-language pathologist.