From Birth to Babble: Prelinguistic Skills to Master Before Words Emerge


You have been told to expect your child to use “one word by one year.” Great! Does this happen magically? Are there skills you should be looking for? What strategies can you implement throughout your child’s first year to facilitate their language development? We often expect that children will just “catch on” and begin speaking. For some children, this strategy works; but for many children, they need more support. Sometimes this means seeking a full speech and language evaluation; but other times, you as caregivers can implement simple strategies to help your child gain new skills.

What prelinguistic skills should I be looking for?

Prelinguistic skills are skills that help to support early expressive language development. According to Laura Mize, MS, CCC-SLP, there are as many as 11 skills that children typically acquire before we expect to hear their first words. She identifies these skills as follows:

  1. Reacts to events in their environment
  2. Responds to people when they talk to them or play
  3. Takes turns with you during interactions
  4. Develops a longer attention span
  5. Shifts and shares joint attention with others
  6. Plays with a variety of toys 
  7. Understands early words and follows simple directions
  8. Vocalizes or makes sounds purposefully
  9. Imitates actions, gestures, sounds, and words
  10. Uses early gestures like waving and pointing
  11. Initiates interaction with others to get needs met or to play

This seems like a long list! Typically, these skills develop in this order. However, you may find that your child develops these skills in a non-linear fashion. You can find which skills on this list your child has mastered, and which skills they are still working on. Then, read on and implement the following strategies to help your child master these skills!


My child isn’t yet displaying all of these prelinguistic skills. What should I do?

It can be overwhelming to know where to start when you feel your child has not mastered the necessary prelinguistic skills in order to begin using words. Here are some general strategies to implement into daily routines to help facilitate these skills:

  1. Help your child learn to clap by engaging in exciting and predictable activities like ring stackers or car ramps. When you and your child complete a round of the activity, model “yay!” with exaggerated clapping. Repeat this several times and then leave a pause to give your child a chance to fill in the expected “clap” before continuing.
  2. Help your child learn to point during daily activities such as book reading or taking a walk. Read a book with simple pictures and use a finger to “point” to each item on the page while you label. While on a walk with your child facing you in their stroller, you can point and label trees, birds, grass, clouds, etc. 
  3. Help your child imitate simple actions by singing songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “The Wheels on the Bus” paired with the hand motions. Make singing these songs a part of your daily routine to allow your child to catch on to the words and motions before they try to imitate!
  4. Help your child use purposeful vocalizations by modeling “non-word” play-sounds such as “beep beep,” “vroom,” saying “mmm” after eating, snoring while pretending to sleep, or saying “uh oh” when something surprising happens.
  5. Help your child learn to take turns in interactions by repeating each one of their babbles and vocalizations. For example, if your child babbles with “gaga,” respond with “gaga” using exaggerated intonation to model turn-taking and reciprocal interactions.


I’ve tried these strategies and my child hasn’t gained these prelinguistic skills. What now?

If you have continued concerns for your child’s speech and language development after implementing these strategies, consider seeking a speech and language evaluation. A speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child’s language development to determine if ongoing support is warranted and guide you in implementing more early language strategies to help your child thrive as a successful communicator! 


Questions or concerns? 

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s early language development, please contact us at or 773-332-9439.

Molly Klein, MS, CCC-SLP

Speech-language pathologist


Reference: Mize, L. (2017). Let’s talk about talking: Ways to strengthen the 11 skills all toddlers master before words emerge

Photo Credit: Melissa Minney via