The Significance of Pre-Verbal Skills

By Emily Watkins, MCD, CCC-SLP

May 9 blog photo

Pre-Verbal skills are the foundation to a child’s language. Without mastery of most, if not all, of these prerequisite skills, children can learn how to talk but eventually you will begin to see gaps or leaks in their language. Check out these pre-verbal skills and ways to encourage your toddler and assist in the development of these skills as well! (These are not in any particular order)

ATTENDING: A child needs to be able to focus on objects or people in order to learn about them. It is also important to attend to experiences. Attending involves: Turning towards an object, gazing at the object, Maintaining interest in an object with the time increasing with the child’s age. Ways to increase attending: use preferred toys, use active toys, get on the floor and play, act out a book.


EYE CONTACT: This is a basic skill beginning shortly after birth. Eye contact enables a child to focus on people’s faces and objects.

Ways to increase eye contact: get on child’s level, speak slowly and in short (1-3 word phrases)


OBJECT PERMANENCE: This occurs when a child understands that people and objects exist even when they aren’t visible. It is important for the development of language. It also reflects cognitive development. It means that if a ball rolls under the table, the child realizes it still exists and will begin to look for it. It enables a child to label things not present. Children’s early words may indicate development of object permanence, such as ‘gone’ when an object is removed from sight.

Ways to increase object permanence: play peek-a-boo with yourself but also with toys, look for items with your child instead of just getting it for them.


CAUSALITY: This is a sensorimotor notion that is a prerequisite for communication. A child realizes that they can make requests and expect a result (cause and effect). It begins as a nonverbal skill. For example: ‘I push this button and a sheep pops up’ or ‘I cry and mom comes in’ or ‘I point to that cup and dad gets me a drink.’ Once first words commence, children realize that when they say words people respond immediately.

Ways to increase causality: use sign language to allow your child to communicate before they get an item/toy (you can get their hands and sign for them but we cannot produce words for them. This bridges the gap between nonverbal and verbal).


MEANS END: This is an action sequence signaling the development of intention. The child will approach a task anticipating the outcome. They then select a means to attain the end. Once a means is selected, the child maintains that behavior. The action stops when the desired end is maintained. When children display early tool use, it reflects means-ends. So a child using an object to retrieve another is learning means- end behavior.

Ways to increase means end behavior: Pull string toys, allow your child to problem solve themselves (even if that means they get frustrated)


PLAY: A child needs to explore and learn about different objects before they can use and understand the labels. There are various stages in acquiring play skills. Children begin to explore toys via trial and error. Symbolic play will follow where the child pretends to do daily activities such as pretending to drink from a cup. Symbolic play is where one object represents another, such as using a banana for a telephone. Representative play (role-playing) begins around 24 months (ex. playing roles of people in families (ex. mommy and daddy).

Ways to increase play: model good play behaviors, increase floor time with your toddler, use child preferred toys


MOTOR IMITATION: In order to imitate, a child is required to complete 3 tasks – turn taking, attending to the action and replicating the features of the action. It is helpful to develop the child’s ability to copy actions because motor movements can be totally physically assisted unlike speech. The transition from copying actions to copying sounds can be made (ex. rubbing our tummy while making an ‘mmm’ sound or acting out animal actions while making the animals noise. Use of gestures represents early labeling. Joining words often follows.

Ways to increase motor imitation: use gestures often such as raise your hands above your head during praise for “tada” or clapping your hands for “yay”


SOUND IMITATION: Vocal imitation and gestures are closely related at around 9 months. Gestures are learned with motor imitation and an increase of one will generally increase the other. Children play with sounds long before they imitate. As they begin to copy sounds, they may relate them to real words. This may facilitate the transition from sound imitation to word imitation.

Ways to increase sound imitation: during play or daily routines (bath time/mealtime), use simple words or exclamatory words such as uh oh, bo-bo, ouch, eww, tada, etc. If your child starts to babble, imitate their babble and throw in one “real” word at the end that would be related to what you and your child are doing. For example: “Bababada doggie”


INTENT: There needs to be a purpose to communicate. For example: Seeking attention to self, Requesting objects, actions, information, Greetings, Protesting/rejecting, Responding/acknowledging Informing and answering.

Ways to increase intent: instead of predicting what your child needs/wants, allow them to come to you and ask or use gestures to communicate their needs and wants.


TURN TAKING: This is the basis of communication and interaction (i.e. back and forth of a conversation). It starts off as taking turns in an activity and moves to taking turns in a verbal interaction. For example, the adult pushes the ball towards the child and the child recognizes they should push it back to the adult. As the child becomes older, they recognize when the adult asks for/requests a response, they should comply.

Ways to increase turn-taking: increase play time with your child/floor time and use words like “my turn.” Adult takes their turn and gives toy to child for their turn. The best toys for this involve toys with multiple parts so that you’re not taking a toy away from the child but rather working towards a common goal (Mr. Potato head, putting coins in piggy bank, stacking blocks, etc.)