Pre-verbal Communication Skills
Pre-verbal communication skills are all the ways a child communicates with others without using words. These are early developing skills that form the foundation of a child’s future speech and language development. Pre-verbal communication skills include things such as eye contact, gestures, joint attention, and turn-taking.
When do pre-verbal communication skills usually develop?
Very, very early! In fact, pre-verbal communication skills start developing from the very moment a child is born. The communication pyramid (below) provides a visual depiction of the communication skills that a child usually acquires when they are learning to interact with others. Note that pre-verbal communication skills are at the very bottom of the pyramid. Typical development starts here and progresses up through each level of the pyramid as a child’s communication improves.
While communication skills do typically emerge in this order, a child does not need to master one stage before they move on to the next. In fact, most children are developing skills in all of these areas at the same time – for example, a child is almost always still improving their listening and play skills while they are learning to say their first words.
How do I improve my child’s pre-verbal communication skills?
Children learn these skills by interacting with their parents and siblings as well as by observing others in their environment. Some of the very earliest signs of communication include smiling and making nonsense noises. Pre-verbal skills also include:
- Eye contact – This allows children to have meaningful interactions with others by fully attending to another’s face and facilitating a social connection. Eye contact from a young age teaches children to interpret facial expressions and to have positive thoughts about others. As a child matures, eye contact also helps them to focus on relevant people when they are in loud or busy environments. Encourage your child’s eye contact at home by allowing plenty of face-to-face time, getting down on the floor with them, using excited faces and playing games such as “peek-a-boo”.
- Imitation – This is when a child learns to do something new by copying what someone else is doing. Imitation usually begins with physical actions such as waving, clapping, or banging toys, and progresses to spoken words over time. Encourage your child’s imitation skills at home by modelling simple actions, sounds or facial expressions and praising your child when they do the same.
- Turn-taking – This is an important interaction skill that begins much earlier than a child’s first boardgame. Turn-taking can be as simple as pulling silly faces or saying ‘ga-ga’ back and forth with your child. By taking turns with another person, a child begins to learn the “I-go-you-go” rules of communication. Encourage your child’s turn-taking skills at home with games such as drumming, peek-a-boo, clapping, funny faces, tickling and making nonsense noises.
- Joint attention – Joint attention involves sharing focus on an object or person with someone else. This lets us know that we are referring to, thinking about, and talking about the same thing as the other person. For example, your child might look from you to their milk bottle, back to you again. Encourage your child’s joint attention skills at home by introducing simple objects into your face-to-face time and holding up things your child is looking at so that you can look at them together.
- Gestures – This includes actions such as pointing, showing, giving, nodding yes or no, or waving hi/bye. Children develop gestures before they develop words. Encourage your child’s gesture development at home by modelling the same gestures over and over again and responding immediately if you notice your child trying to use one.
- Vocalisations – Vocalisations are an early sign that your child is becoming aware of their mouth and its ability to make noises. Vocalisations are therefore the earliest stage of speech development. Encourage your child’s vocalisations at home by responding to them whenever they vocalise. This will teach your child that vocalisations are a form of communication – i.e., ‘when I vocalise, something happens!’
- Play – While not strictly a pre-verbal communication skill, play is critical in helping children make sense of the world around them by exposing them to people, objects, actions, and events in a safe environment. Through play, children also learn about object permanence, cause and effect, sequencing, problem-solving and social interaction. Encourage your child’s play development at home by allowing them to explore new objects and ideas, joining in their activities in an excited way and gently showing them new ways to play. Keep in mind that your child will learn far more from you than they will from their toys!
Does my child need to develop pre-verbal communication skills before talking?
In general, yes. When building a house, it is important to establish a strong foundation before working on any other parts of the build. This not only helps the house to remain strong and sturdy over time, but also makes it far more likely that the later stages of the build will be successful. The same logic can be applied when thinking about the relationship between pre-verbal communication skills and future language development. If a child is pressured into saying words before they have developed strong foundations for communication, they are less likely to experience success in the future.
Let’s consider joint attention. If an adult models the word ‘bottle’ while a child is also looking at their bottle, this new word suddenly has a meaning attached to it. However, if an adult models the word ‘bottle’ while a child is not looking at it with them, the child has far less opportunity to make this connection.
Remember, pre-verbal skills are the building blocks of communication, and it is never too late to start fostering, encouraging, and modelling pre-verbal communication skills at home.
Carpenter, Nagell, K., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Social Cognition, Joint Attention, and Communicative Competence from 9 to 15 Months of Age. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 63(4), i–174. https://doi.org/10.2307/1166214
Owens. (2020). Language Development: An Introduction (Tenth edition.). Pearson Education, Inc.
Special 30th Anniversary Issue on ‘The Relevance of the Digital Age in understanding and supporting children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)’ (2012). Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 28(3), 344–344. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265659012463989