The Answer:

It is important to understand that all children broadly follow a developmental sequence. Children need to master all of the developmental skills that come first to really begin to use words in a functional way. It’s true they may have a few words that pop out every once in a while, but they need to learn very important prelinguistic skills before they really talk. Prelinguistic skills are all the skills children have before they begin to speak. As speech-language pathologists, we look at your child, determine what pre-linguistic skills are missing, and begin to put together a treatment plan to bridge the gaps.

When it comes to looking at what skills your child may be missing, Laura Mize, M.S.,CCC-SLP, suggests the following, in no specific order, are important areas to consider:

1. Reacts to events in the environment- Responding is the basis for relating and communicating. Does your child react to things he sees, hears, and feels?

2. Responds to people- Communication involves two-way interactions, whether it be facial expressions, body language, sound, or words. Does your child enjoy interactions with other people and respond to them?

3. Begins turn taking- Talking is an “I talk, You talk” experience. Communication is two people engaging in back and forth exchanges that can be nonverbal body language, sounds, or words. Does your child participate in exchanges with others?

4. Develops a longer attention span- Attention is critical if we are going to learn. Does you child stay with an activity when alone? When with adults?

5. Shifts and shares joint attention- Children learn through sharing their focus and attention. They begin to understand words and even use words based on shared experiences with others. Does your child demonstrate joint attention by shifting his attention between an object and you while you are sharing the same focus?

6. Plays with a variety of toys appropriately- The child’s work is play. They learn through playing. Does you child play well with different toys?

7. Understands early words and follows simple directions- Before a child can use words to talk, they must understand them. Does your child follow directions? What kind? Directions that occur in a familiar situation? One-stage directions? Two-stage directions?

8. Vocalizes purposefully- Before children learn to talk, they must produce sounds or vocalizations. Does your child use his voice to make sounds? What kind?

9. Imitates actions, gestures, sounds and words- Children learn to talk through imitation or repeating others. Can you child repeat actions he sees others do? Sounds he hears others make?

10. Uses early gestures- Gestures tend to come just before words in the typical developmental sequence. What gestures does your child use?

11. Initiates interaction with others to get needs met or to play- Since others don’t always know what your child wants or needs, your child must find a way to get your attention to meet his or her needs. What does your child do to get you to play a game such as “Chase” or “Peekaboo”? What does your child do to let you know s/he is hungry?

These skills form the foundation for communication. They do not occur in a strict linear sequence. For example, you may see a child initiate interaction with others nonverbally to play a game of chase, yet have no sounds yet to use for words. Most of these skills do occur in the first year of life or shortly thereafter. As speech-language pathologists, we intentionally work to teach your child these underlying foundational skills before we ask your child to say words. We want your child to understand words, to be social, and connect with others. We may be laying the foundation for words by modeling them and cuing them as we play, but our focus is on teaching your child the skills they are missing.

So, the answer to when do we teach your child to say words is complex. It is completely dependent on your child’s profile. Which skills are missing? Are several foundational skills missing? How easily does your child learn this new skill?

In speech and language therapy, let’s devote our attention and energy to something we can change, something we can actually do to make a big difference. Together, with your help, we can make a difference for your child.


Mize, L., Let’s Talk About Talking…Ways to Strengthen The 11 Skills All Toddler Master Before Words Emerge,, 2017.

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