Is My Child Ready to Talk?

11 Skills that children need before they day their first words

A child’s first word is a significant milestone in child development. We often have families who come into Big Blue Canopy, expressing concern that their child is not yet using words. Words may be the ultimate goal, but did you know that there are important skills that develop before words emerge?

Is my child ready for words?

There are 11 skills that all children have before they say their first words. These pre-requisite, or pre-linguistic, skills center around social interaction. Communication is all about interacting with others! Before children can interact and communicate with others using words, they must learn to interact and communicate without using words. That is what makes these 11 skills foundational for language development, regardless of a child’s diagnosis.

11 Pre-linguistic Skills

1. Reacting to events in the environment

We often use language to comment on what we see, hear and feel. Children develop this skill through the exploration of toys and their environment. All five senses contribute to the learning of this skill: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. To support this skill, exaggerate your own reactions to sounds and events that are happening around you and your child.

2. Responding to people when they talk to or play with your child

Conversation is social and always involves at least two people. Children are most likely to respond to you when you are face-to-face, make exaggerated facial expressions, and follow their lead in play (i.e., playing or doing whatever your child wants to do).

3. Taking turns during interactions

Before learning words, children must develop back-and-forth interactions that are essential to conversation. These back-and-forth interactions may take place during play, daily routines, or when vocalizing (e.g., a child may make a sound, then stop and wait for your response). Turn-taking can be challenging, and even frustrating, for children when they are asked to take turns when playing with a fun toy. Begin to practice turn-taking in daily routine interactions (e.g., putting shoes on, changing diaper). For example, give your child a turn by giving him or her one shoe to hold while you put on the other shoe. Then encourage your child to give you a turn by handing the shoe back to you. Shoes are not super motivating for most children, which will make turn-taking much easier!

4. Developing an increased attention span

Attention is important for learning any new skill. A child’s attention span should increase to at least 5 minutes when playing by himself or herself, and even longer when playing with an adult. To help increase attention span, you can use the “one more time” rule. If you are playing with a ring stacker and your child wants to be done with the activity, encourage your child to play with it just one more time before moving on to the next toy. Building attention is a step-by-step process. 

5. Participating in joint attention interactions with others

Joint attention can be thought of as “shared attention.” Joint attention occurs when a child and adult attend to the same thing. The child and adult both know that they are aware of this shared attention. Joint attention is extremely important for language development – joint attention sets the stage for a child to learn how to share a topic of conversation when talking with others.

6. Playing with a variety of toys appropriately

There is a saying that “play is a child’s work.” Children learn through play, and play development supports language development. If this is challenging for your child, show them how to play with the toy by playing with it yourself. You can also make play easier for your child. You stack the blocks, your child knocks them down. You put the puzzle pieces in, your child takes them out.

7. Understanding early words and simple directions

Understanding of language always comes before the use of language. Use of simple language to narrate daily routines and play will help to support your child’s language understanding. Use simple directions like, “Find your ___” or “Give me ___” to help with following directions.

8. Vocalizing (i.e., making sounds) purposefully

Words are meaningful. Before using words, a child will make sounds with the intention to gain your attention or to convey specific messages. To support this skill, act like every sound your child makes is communicating something to you.

9. Imitating the actions, gestures, sounds, and words of others

Children learn through imitating what they see and hear, including what adults around them say. Support imitation by imitating your child’s actions, vocalizations, etc. This will catch their attention and increase their excitement to interact with you, which will ultimately lead to the child imitating your actions, gestures, and/or words.

10. Using early gestures

Children use gestures to communicate before they use words. Early gestures can include pointing, waving, showing/giving objects, shaking/nodding head, blowing kisses, reaching to be picked up, clapping with excitement, etc. Model and exaggerate gestures in the interactions you have with your child and others.

11. Initiating interactions with others to get needs met

Communication is social. One of the first reasons why children communicate is to get their needs met. Parents will often rush in to help their child, but doing this takes away a child’s opportunity to communicate his or her wants and needs. Wait (about 10 seconds) with an expectant look on your face for your child to initiate the interaction. Waiting will increase your child’s motivation to communicate wants/needs through eye gaze, gestures, or vocalizations.

Viewing a child’s early communication through the lens of pre-linguistic skills helps us to meet them where they are in development. It also gives us a chance to recognize and celebrate their strengths and to build upon those in speech-language therapy.

Concerns about your child’s language development? A speech-language pathologist at Big Blue Canopy would love to come alongside your family in supporting your child’s communication. Call (513)-880-6800 to schedule an evaluation.

Additional resources and references for early intervention:

Teach Me to Talk

The Hanen Centre


Mize, L. (2017). Let’s talk about talking: Ways to strengthen the 11 skills all toddlers master before words emerge.

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