Early intervention speech and language therapy focuses on children with delays from ages birth to five. In addition to seeking treatment from a Speech-Language Pathologist, you can help your child by learning about typical development and using strategies during your daily routines. The early years are a time of rapid development and are crucial to building foundational speech, language, and social skills. Here is a basic overview of some early communication skills your child needs before they can use words, as well as some home strategies.
What Skills Must Develop Before My Child Can Talk?
Communication is so much more than just words! Play, social thinking, and a variety of movements, gestures, and facial expressions are all part of effective communication, too. “Pre-verbal” skills are the building blocks of communication and typically begin developing the moment a child is born—as they listen, watch, play, take turns, and try out new sounds. Many pre-verbal skills are important before a child can name objects, have a conversation, or follow directions.
For example, a child must learn to:
- get someone’s attention, request, protest, and show emotions. They do this by crying and making a variety of sounds, facial expressions and movements. They also use gestures such as reaching, pointing and pushing objects away with their hands.
- understand gestures and visual signals, such as knowing that when mom puts her arms out it means, “up,” and when dad gets a bottle out it means, “time to eat.”
- make simple sounds and movements with their tongue, lips, and jaw such as when they open and close their mouth, kiss, smile, and blow bubbles. These are precursors to the complex movements of speech.
- produce single vowel and consonant sounds such as, “oooh,” and “puh.”
- babble by putting sounds together into syllables such as, “mamama.”
- take turns in a simple game such as peek-a-boo or hiding a toy and finding it. This is practice for conversational turn-taking and involves early social skills.
- look at the person who is talking and notice what that person is paying attention to. For instance, a baby may see you look across the room and follow your gaze. This skill relates to social engagement and understanding another person’s thoughts.
- point to something they want you to notice, such as a picture in a book or a toy they want. This is part of learning to influence what someone else is thinking and doing.
- understand single words, such as ball, open, mama, up, uh-oh, and dog.
How Can I Help My Child Develop These Skills?
If your child is struggling with communication, they may not have some important pre-verbal skills. It is crucial to be sure they learn any missing skills so that they can become effective communicators. There is no need for special toys or elaborate activities. Simple interactions through play, book reading, and daily routines are the best way for young children to learn. Just hearing you talk is amazing for speech and language development. A child will learn more during activities which interest and motivate them, such as during their favorite games and moments when they want you to give them something. Your SLP will individualize your home activities as well as demonstrate them for you.
Examples of home strategies for children learning pre-verbal skills:
- Try to get on your child’s level so they can see your face as you talk, play, sing, or read. This helps them to see and imitate your lip and tongue movements.
- Slow down and exaggerate your voice and intonations a little to highlight each speech sound and get the child’s attention. This helps your child to process speech sounds more efficiently.
- When your child is looking at your face, make single sounds and syllables in an exaggerated way to help your child learn to imitate you.
- Make silly faces and encourage your child to imitate you. This encourages new movements as well as turn taking and social reciprocity.
- As you play with blocks or other toys, talk about what you and your child are doing and use action words. For example, as you stack blocks, say, “Up, up, up…crash! They fell down! Again?”… Or while you race cars, “Vrooom, vroom! Car goes fast! Uh-oh, crash!”
- When your child makes sounds or babbles, reward them by smiling and talking or babbling back to them in an excited way. You can even imitate their babble and “interpret” it. If they say, “babababa” you can say, “ba? You want the ball? Ball! Roll the ball!” Then roll the ball to them. This teaches them that they have communicated (even if you aren’t sure what they meant) and is very powerful!
- When your child looks at or points at something, “follow their lead” by showing them you are interested in it, too. You can show interest by looking at the object, getting it out to play with, and then talking as you play.
- Speak in short, simple words and phrases to support their ability to understand and imitate you.
- Repeat sounds, key words, and phrases many times. Learning requires many repetitions. If you feel like a broken record, you are doing it right!
- Praise your child when they successfully understand a word or phrase, imitate you, or otherwise participate in your activity. A smile and an excited voice are often highly motivating to young children.
- Sing high-interest songs with accompanying movements, such as The Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Ring Around the Rosie. These songs build skills in speech, vocabulary, grammar, and social interactions. If needed, use hand-over-hand to help your child make the movements.
- Read short picture books together. Label pictures, make animal sounds, and ask simple “wh” questions as you go and answer the questions yourself in a conversational way. Start with “where” and “what” questions. For example, “Cow. Moo! Where’s cow? Here’s cow! (point) Moo! Moo!… What’s that? A doggie!… Woof woof!” Keep it fun and don’t worry about reading every word on the page or even finishing the book. Some children may only want to look at one page, and that’s okay! You are still teaching them how books work, having a great social interaction, and providing many repetitions of words.
- When your child wants a toy or snack, hold 2 choices up out of their reach and label each choice a couple times before giving them the one they reach for. “Cow or pig?…Want cow or pig?…(they reach out for cow)…You want cow! Here’s cow!” They may not say the word, but the repetition teaches the word and encourages them to communicate with gestures in order to request.
- Talk about your daily activities. Describe what you and your child do and see. For example: “Bath time! Turn on water….Water’s warm….Get in the bath. Splash! Splash!….Want a toy? (Hold up two toys.) Alligator or duck? Duck!…Here’s duck!…Duh-duh-duck! Quack quack,” etc.
There are many more simple strategies that your SLP can teach you. It can take some time to learn how to incorporate these activities into your daily routine, but every small step counts!
Author: Erica Krzyzanowski, MS, CCC/SLP