“When will my child start talking?” If I had a magic wand, I’d grant all the parents of the world with talking toddlers! Indeed, one of parents’ main goals when they come see me is “I want my child to talk!” After a collection of background information, clinical observation, and formal assessment, I often explain to parents that, before their child will talk, other “pre-talking” and early interaction skills need to be fostered.
Talking is a multi-step process, and mastering these pre-linguistic skills is foundational to a child producing his/her first meaningful words.
What are talking-readiness or pre-linguistic skills?
understanding of language
Below I elaborate a bit on each skill and provide tips and activities to help build target skills.
Eye contact: being able to look at and attend to a parent’s face, mouth, verbalizations, and gestures. This provides a basis for social bonding with parents and loved ones, while also allowing the child to develop an understanding for facial expressions and an attentiveness to others.
Activity to increase eye contact: play peek a boo with your child. While playing with your child or practicing vocabulary, place items of interest next to your face to help boost your child’s reference to your eyes and mouth.
Attending and listening: being able to attend to a mother or father’s voice. This provides the child with many opportunities to hear the language, learn words, and attach meaning to those words.
Tip to increase attending and listening: vary your tone of voice, use exaggerated facial expressions and body movements, and simplify** your language [L1] when interacting with your child.
**Simplifying your language refers to avoiding use of long elaborate sentences that your child may get lost in, rather shortening your message to functional and grammatical phrases (e.g. Complex language that child may not fully understanding: “Look Maxi, here is a red, round apple and right next to it are green apples and yellow bananas. We are going to make apple pie tonight with the green apples” versus Short, more concise language where child may have the chance to learn new vocabulary and fully understand mom’s message: “Look at the apples Maxi! There are green apples (pick a green one up) and red apples (pick red apple up to show child). These will be good for pie!)
Activity to address attention and listening: read stories and interactive books (touch and feel) with your child.
Turn taking: Being able to alternate between action and anticipatory attentiveness. Communication is interactive. A child begins to develop turn taking skills at infancy, when a parent reacts to the baby’s vocalizations and movement with actions, sounds, and words (e.g., baby smiles and parent smiles back). The child sees how the parents pause briefly as they wait for him/her to respond. The parent may then pause briefly for the baby to respond. The emergence of reciprocal play is the basis for later social skill development.
Activity to address turn taking skills: Social games such as “Peek a Boo” or rolling a ball back and forth are great for building joint attention and turn taking skills.
Imitation skills: Being able to imitate is pertinent to language development. Imitation involves a child’s ability to mimic others’ gestures and body movements (waving, clapping, baby sign), actions with objects (banging on drum), and sounds or words. Children use imitation throughout early childhood to learn new things and enhance social exchanges.
Activity to target imitation skills: Sing songs with your child. These songs have actions associated with them, so the child can learn to imitate actions. My favorites include “Open shut them”, “If you’re happy” and “Wheels on the Bus”. It is okay if your child does not imitate actions right away, just attending and rocking his/her body to the beat is great! If you would like a high-quality model of these songs check out https://www.youtube.com/user/SuperSimpleSongs
Joint attention: A child should have adequate joint attention skills so that he/she can simultaneously attend to the same thing with his/her caregivers. A child with decreased joint attention skills may miss out on everyday learning opportunities. During shared activities, the child has a chance to learn and attach meaning to words when an adult comments about something (e.g. during book reading, adult points to a ball and says “ball” or while playing with cars, the adult pushes the car and comments “Go!”). If joint attention skills are not present, the child will have difficulty attaching meaning to words and interacting with others for the purpose of communicating. Conversely, a child will not say a word of which they do not know the meaning.
Activity to address joint attention: Follow the child’s lead and talk about what they are looking at in simple language.
Receptive language skills : Prior to using words to communicate, a child must have the ability to understand words and language. These skills encompass several factors including understanding of implied meanings (e.g. mom putting on her shoes may mean she is going out), understanding of routines and directions (e.g. after putting on pajamas you will brush your teeth), understanding of words (“train” means a vehicle that goes on a track and makes a “choo choo” sound), understanding of gestures (e.g. mouth to lips means “be quiet”), and understanding of questions (e.g. where is daddy?”) .
Tip to promote receptive language skills: narrate your daily actions, even if the child may not be actively attending (e.g. while washing dishes, you may say “I’m washing dishes, scrub, scrub, lets get the clean!”) this will ensure a language rich environment. Additionally, while child is playing with a toy, eating, etc., narrate his/her actions (e.g. Maxi is eating cereal, yum, lets have more! You’re pushing car, push car, go.. etc.)
Play skills: As the late Mr. Roger’s concisely put it “Play is the work of childhood”. Play teaches children about their environment, including cause and effect relationships. Through play, children begin to learn the effect their behavior has on objects and people.
Activity to address play skills: Model appropriate play with early learning toys including cause and effect light up or pop up toys, shape sorters, puzzles, car and ramps, etc. The most important thing is that you play these toys with your child. A simple game of rolling a ball back and forth plays role in developing turn taking and joint attention skills which is pertinent in later conversational skills.
Click -> here for a few of my favorite toys.
Every child reaches developmental milestones at different times. Some children will start talking away by their first birthday, while others may be late talkers and need an extra boost of language enrichment. Professional intervention from a pediatric speech-language pathologist is an option to help some children with talking readiness skills, social interaction, understanding and use of language to communicate.
Every day and in every routine, there are opportunities for language learning, playing, and communicating with your child. Take advantage of them 😊
Happy Communicating and Happy Thanksgiving,