Headstart for Life

The Building Blocks of Language: Understanding Pre-linguistic Skills

Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us for another Headstart for Life blog post. Today we’re going to be looking at some of the skills children need to prepare them for communication.

We tend to think of speech as its own milestone. We look out for babbling or first words to give us concrete signs that the ability to communicate is developing. But learning to communicate involves more than that. Long before children are calling out for “mama” or “dada”, they’re developing pre-linguistic skills that serve as the foundation for speech and language. Many infants learn these skills instinctively, but some babies need more support to pick them up. Part of a speech-language therapist’s job is to provide that support.


What are some of these essential pre-linguistic skills?


1. Joint attention

This refers to the ability to share attention, usually towards an object or event of interest, with another person. Your child may follow your eye gaze, pointing or other gestures that may or may not be paired with a verbal cue (e.g. “Look at that bird!”) that lead to the both of you paying attention to the same thing.

2. Intent

Communicative intent refers to the ability to use verbal cues (like speech), non-verbal cues (e.g. gestures, facial expressions) or written words to deliver a message to other people. Non-intentional communicative intent occurs spontaneously and without thought, such as when an infant cries when he or she is hungry. Intentional communicative intent is deliberate, whether it is through eye gaze, gestures, or speech. For example, your toddler might look at you and raise his arms when he wants to be carried, or an older child might tell you, “I’m tired, carry me!”


3. Persistence

This refers to the awareness that a message has not been received by the intended recipient, and the attempts to continue the communication despite the breakdown. Your child might call out for attention and, if there is no reply, continue to call out for you, or physically touch you to gain your attention.

4. Shared enjoyment

As the name suggests, shared enjoyment refers to the ability to share a feeling with someone else. A child might see one parent doing something funny and laugh, then turn to the other parent to see if they are laughing as well, as a sign of mutual enjoyment.father-1633655_1280

5. Social referencing

Finally, social referencing is the ability to read cues such as gestures or facial expressions from their surroundings and use those cues as guidelines for socially appropriate or safe behaviour. For example, upon entering a new environment like a classroom or a friend’s house, your child might look at you to see if it’s safe for them to go off on their own to explore the room.


Why are these pre-linguistic skills important?


As mentioned, these skills are building blocks to speech and language. Delays in these skills may also lead to difficulties not only with learning to talk, but also with developing social communication skills, peer relations, and understanding of social rules and expectations in the classroom or in play.

Take, for example, a child who has difficulty with joint attention. We teach children about the world around them very often by pointing at objects in our surroundings and providing them with the vocabulary for those objects (e.g. pointing to a ball at the park and saying, “That’s a ball!”) The inability to pay attention to the same thing at the same time as someone else reduces these types of opportunities.


How do you tell if your child needs help?


Apart from delayed speech and language skills, some signs that might indicate that your child requires additional support include a lack of desire to engage with others, inability to sustain attention to an activity during play, difficulties sharing joint attention, a lack of eye contact, reduced babbling or vocalisations, or a lack of enjoyment in cooperative play.

In general, however, if you have any concerns about your child, consult a professional. We’re here to help!


Ideas for the home


Even with professional assistance, these skills can continue to be nurtured at home. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Encourage joint attention by following your child’s gaze and talking about what they are looking at or interested in, rather than pointing to objects that you are interested in and trying to attract their attention
  • Vary your voice and tone while you are interacting with your child to better engage them
  • Play with your child and narrating your actions while you play
  • Talk about daily activities while you engage in them (e.g. cooking, bath time)
  • Remove distracting background noise to allow your child to focus on your voice

Most importantly, remember to have fun and enjoy the time you spend interacting with your child. The more you enjoy your time together, the more they will as well!



Talking Readiness (Pre-Language Skills). (2017). Retrieved from https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/using-speech/talking-readiness-pre-language-skills/?print=pdf

Hesch, K. (2015). Helping Children with Autism with Communicative Intent. Retrieved from https://nspt4kids.com/parenting/communicative-intent-children-autism-spectrum-disorder-asd/

Podolsky, J. (2013). Five Pre-linguistic Skills Children Must Achieve | Speech Therapy Centres of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.speechtherapycentres.com/five-pre-linguistic-skills-children-must-achieve/

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Natalie

Natalie has always been passionate about language and working with children, and finds nothing more rewarding than helping a child communicate successfully with the world around them. In her spare time, she indulges in superhero movies and musical theatre.

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