Pre-verbal Skills in Early Childhood Development: The Building Blocks of Speech

PreVerbal skills for babies

Pre-verbal skills are foundational abilities in infants and toddlers that emerge long before the first recognisable words are spoken and play a critical role in a child’s ability to understand and use language. These skills are very important as they set the stage for understanding language, expressing needs, desires, emotions, and eventually, forming words and sentences down the road. Here’s an overview of key pre-verbal skills that contribute to speech development:

Building Connections

Children build connections with the people around them, much before they learn to talk. These connections are built by looking at people, hearing their voice and turning their heads in the direction of the voice, following other people’s gaze.

Eye Contact – Eye contact is the very first step towards social interaction. It signifies attentiveness and interest, forming a non-verbal bond that is essential for effective communication.

Joint Attention – Joint attention happens when the child and parent share focus on an object or event.  for example, both look at and play with a toy. Simply looking together at the toy at the same time is not joint attention. It is when the child and the adult enjoy an underlying shared experience that helps build a connection.

Developing an Understanding of the World

Before children can talk, they interact with the people and objects in their environment. This helps children in understanding the context and flow of words.

Listening – When children turn their head towards a sound coming from a particular direction, it is signifies that they are listening and attending to the sound. In older non-verbal children with developmental disabilities, listening skills are critical for the development of speech. It allows children to recognize differences in phonemes, the building blocks of words, setting the stage for understanding and producing speech.

Understanding Tone of Voice – Children can pick up on emotional cues like happy and sad tone of the parent’s voice and react accordingly. If this ability to discriminate is missing, then it needs to be addressed in a therapeutic setting.

Responding to Verbal and Non-Verbal Cues: Recognizing names, common objects, and simple instructions, as well as responding to gestures or changes in tone of voice, are important pre-verbal cognitive skills. This understanding of context and cues is vital for language comprehension and eventual speech production.

Developing Expressive Speech

Before babies learn to speak, they discover their own unique ways to communicate with us.

Cooing and Babbling – Babies make all kinds of unintelligible sounds at as early as 3 months of age. These sounds are a mode of expression for them. They communicate their emotions with these sounds. They are essentially precursors to spoken language.

Gesturing and Pointing – Before they can use words, children use gestures to communicate. Pointing at objects or using hand gestures to indicate wants or needs is a significant pre-verbal skill. These gestures are precursors to language and help children convey messages and learn the concept of symbolic representation.

Interaction & Learning

The ability to communicate without words, such as with our actions is an important pre-requisite to speech development. Communication without words happens through:

Imitation – Infants and toddlers learn a lot through mimicking the actions, sounds, and facial expressions of others. Imitation is a critical skill for speech development as it helps children learn how to produce sounds and words by watching and copying the mouth movements and vocalizations of those around them.

Turn-Taking – This involves learning the rhythm of conversation, when to speak and when to listen. Early forms of turn-taking include babbling back and forth with a caregiver. This skill is fundamental for later conversational exchange and understanding the structure of social interactions.

These pre-verbal skills are not isolated milestones but interconnected abilities that develop through engagement and interaction with the environment and caregivers. Effective Speech therapy interventions are designed to facilitate these pre-verbal skills so that the child learns to adapt, engage more with his/her environment, and eventually speak using appropriate words.