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  • Writer's pictureLaura Brown

Four Skills That Come Before First Words

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

If you're an SLP who works with children under 3, it's likely that most of your little people would be classified as "emerging communicators". This means that they don't have a well-established system of symbolic communication. In more simple terms, these tend to be our kids with less than fifty words. Fifty words is an important benchmark in language development because it tends to be the magical number where things really start to click. Once a child has 50 spoken words, they start saying new words each day and are able to combine words to form simple phrases. There are four key skills that must be established in order for children to experience this monumental leap in language development:

  1. Social Engagement and Reciprocity

  2. Early Intentional Communication

  3. Language Comprehension

  4. Imitation of Actions and Sounds

Children who are 18 months+ and presenting with limited functional communication, no spoken words, or very few spoken words are often missing skills in one or more of these critical areas. Let's break these down and discuss some strategies and interventions for each area.

1. Social Engagement and Reciprocity

Communication starts with connection. Children need to be engaged and interested in order to learn language. Conway et al. found that the amount of time children and their caregivers spent in supported joint engagement at age 2 predicted receptive and expressive language abilities at age 3.

We can foster engagement by:

  • Following the child's lead

  • Noticing what catches their interest and talking about it

  • Honoring all forms of communication

  • Making play the modality and not the reward

  • Prioritizing joyful interactions over compliance and task completion

2. Early Intentional Communication

This includes triadic eye gaze, vocalizations, and gestures. Donnellan et al. found that early acts of intentional communication can predict receptive and expressive language skills later in childhood. They also found that modeling and practicing early forms of communication helps to facilitate the transition to spoken words (or other types of symbolic language).

We can support early communication skills by:

  • Paying attention to the nonverbal ways a child is communicating and responding accordingly

  • Modeling gestures and words to match the message you think they are trying to communicate

  • Creating opportunities for them to initiate using communication temptations

3. Language Comprehension

Children must understand the meaning of words before they will be able to use them. Children learn words when we help them build conceptual representations by modeling words in a meaningful context. Anderson et al. found that both quantity and quality of language input significantly predicted a child's language abilities later in childhood.

We can build language comprehension by:

  • Providing contingent input that is responsive to the child's interests, attention, and preferences

  • Reading, singing, and narrating during play and other daily activities

  • Using parentese: a higher pitch, rich intonation, and stretched vowel sounds

4. Imitation of Actions and Sounds

Imitation is an essential skill for growing a child's expressive vocabulary. Children are usually able to imitate actions before they can imitate sounds and are able to imitate simple play sounds before they can imitate words. Stone et al. found that imitation skills at age 2 were the most significant predictor of spoken language skills at age 4, along with total hours of speech therapy.

We can grow imitation skills by:

  • Pairing actions with silly sound effects to make imitation more interesting and fun

  • Modeling sounds, words, and phrases with rhythm and emphasis. Use a sing-songy voice and stretch out your vowel sounds.

  • Positioning yourself across from the child so that they can see your face. Use socially salient behaviors like exaggerated gestures and exclamatory words to draw attention to yourself.

If you want to learn additional evidence-based interventions for supporting prelinguistic skill development, you belong in The First 50 Words Course for SLPs!

Inside of the course, you'll learn about the Four Is: a research-based model for understanding prelinguistic skill development. The video modules break down each key area of prelinguistic skill development: interaction, intent, input, and imitation. The course also includes the Guide to Prelinguistic Skill Development which contains 70+ pages of evidence-based interventions for young children with language disorders. This guide can be used as a roadmap to determine what skills a child needs support with and what interventions can be implemented to grow those skills.

The course contains over 100 pages of attractive parent handouts in an organized and easily referenced format. You can also earn EIGHT professional development hours which count toward your total of 30 needed for ASHA.

Enrollment for the fall cohort of The First 50 Words Course for SLPs will open on September 20th, 2023.

I look forward to connecting with everyone inside the course!

All my best,

Laura Brown, MA, CCC-SLP


Donnellan et al. (2020). Infants’ intentionally communicative vocalizations elicit responses from caregivers and are the best predictors of the transition to language: A longitudinal investigation of infants’ vocalizations, gestures and word production. Developmental Science.

Stone, W., Yoder, P. (2001). Predicting Spoken Language Level in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism.


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