The Foundation for Language Development
by: Ana-Maria Jaramillo, M.S., CCC-SLP
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in the early intervention population, the most common question I get asked by caregivers is, “why hasn’t my child said their first word yet?” Then immediately after that question comes, “when is my child going to start communicating?”
Chances are, your child is already communicating – just not verbally. From birth, babies begin communicating using facial expressions, motor movements, eye contact and sounds. This is known as non-verbal communication. Long before communicating with words and phrases, children utilize an impressive array of non-verbal forms of communication to interact with people. These “pre-language” or “pre-linguistic” skills are the foundation for language development and are directly tied to your child’s ability to produce his/her first word. Exciting! As soon as children learn that these non-verbal skills have significance and can influence the behavior of people around them (for example, that they can get their bottle if they make a certain sound or look/point at it), they begin to interact more intentionally. It is through these back-and-forth interactions that a child learns the power of language and communication.
Despite exhaustive study and having read countless articles about these skills while I was studying to be an SLP, it took me many years to fully understand how to teach and identify these pre-language skills in a way that is effective. So, what does a child present like that does not have any pre-language skills? Poor eye contact, no imitation of sounds or motor movements, fleeting attention, inability to sit still for more than 1-2 minutes, flat affect, difficulty waving hi/bye, no pointing and very few sounds/words. So, where do you start with a child that won’t sit with you for more than 1 minute, won’t imitate sounds and has trouble maintaining eye gaze? Start by creating an opportunity for an interaction by picking a preferred toy, action or object that is HIGHLY motivating for the child (i.e. bubbles, wind-up toys, blocks). Once you have your child’s interest, focus on building the following skills:
- Joint Attention
Joint attention is when two people share interest in an object or action and there is an understanding between the two people that they are both interested in the same object or action. For example, a child points and looks up at an airplane and then looks at the caregiver to get the caregiver to look at the airplane too. When the child becomes older, he/she may pair the shift in eye gaze with a vocalization to gain the caregiver’s attention. This skill is essential for a child’s social language and comprehension. Typically, we see joint attention emerge around 9 months of age.
- Eye Contact
Encourage your child to maintain appropriate eye gaze by having him/her sit and face you while you sing a variety of songs and play games, such as peek-a-boo. Having conversations during familiar routines, such as bath time and meal time, will encourage your child to look at your eyes and mouth to imitate motor movements. When teaching eye contact, try to be at the same level as your child and hold preferred objects around 2 inches from the bridge of your nose. It helps to say phrases such as, “if you want the X, find my eyes.”
Show your child an object he or she is very interested in, for example bubbles or a ball.Say “look” loud and clear, then point to the object and label it a few times. Then, encourage your child to reach for it as described above and shape his/her hand into the correct pointing position with his/her index finger. Say, “point” and then name the object and use the sign at the same time. Give the object immediately as a reward. Allow your child time to explore the object, help him/her hold it and turn it to see it from different angles. Repeat this activity frequently each day with different objects until your child can “ask” for the object by pointing to it himself. Encourage your child to look at the object that he or she is pointing to.
Play games that the child is already familiar with, such as throwing the ball around or pushing trains. While you play the game, describe what you are doing using simple phrases. After you let the child take a turn, say “my turn” by touching your chest and immediately take a turn. Say the phrase, “your turn” while pointing to the child when he/she takes a turn. Try to take at least 10 turns each, a few times a day with different objects/toys.
- Social Gestures/Signs
By 10 months of age, your baby should be waving hi/bye when given a verbal cue. Encourage your child to wave when leaving daycare, saying goodnight, saying good morning and cleaning up (i.e. saying bye to toys). Using signs for “all done, mine, clean up, open, play, book, more, eat and drink” encourage an effective form of non-verbal communication, which can bridge the gap between non-verbal and verbal language. Sign language is extremely effective for children who have a high receptive language, but are not yet producing real words. While signing, always say the word you are signing aloud.
- Babbling/Symbolic Noises
Children often use and imitate a variety of environmental noises before they start labelling objects. Animal noises, transportation noises (i.e. cars, trains, airplanes), telephones and door bells are examples of symbolic noises children most frequently use. You can make animal noises for pictures of animals, toy animals and when you see real animals. For example, “Look, there’s a cat, meow, meow! What does the cat say? That’s right, meow!”One of the most effective and fun ways to teach symbolic noises is by singing songs like “Old McDonald” because they are predictable and engaging for your child. To reinforce symbolic noises even more, pretend like you forgot the lyrics and have the child attempt to help you!
Remember to create multiple language opportunities for your child to practice these skills throughout the day. The most effective way to target these skills is by embedding them in your daily routine! How do you target these pre-language skills? Comment and share below!