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Preverbal skills refer to the various ways in which we communicate without words. These skills are essential as they support language learning in children. These skills include eye contact, joint attention and concentration. Once the child has mastered the basic skills of eye contact, paying attention and concentration, other forms of preverbal skills such as imitation, gestures and learning of facial expressions can then be taught more easily.
In my experience as a Speech Language Specialist, I feel that the most important skill to be taught first is eye contact. Children must first learn how to establish and maintain eye contact before they can learn to read facial cues from those around them. Only then are they better able to pay attention to the speaker and concentrate on what they are saying.
Parents often question what is the best approach to teach their child to maintain eye contact. In my opinion, the most effective way to teach this is through play. Play is a fun and interactive experience for the kids and can be a useful platform for teaching preverbal skills. For example, by establishing a simple routine of taking turns during play, we can teach them to pay attention to the actions of those around them. Toys like bubbles, colourful alphabet or number mats can also be used as props to further engage them. Even in our everyday lives, we can also be intentional about engaging the child and drawing their attention to the things that can be found around us. For example, we can point to a bird and telling them “Hey look there! It is a bird! The colour of the bird is black!” This accomplishes many things at once. It helps to train the child to focus on the object, learn how to recognise said object and pick up the vocabulary that can be used to describe it.
Thereafter, the next skill to focus on would be joint attention skills. Joint attention refers to the shared focus that two individuals have on an object. Learning this skill helps the child to communicate better and is essential in helping them to pick up important social skills (e.g. perspective-taking) in the future. There are many ways to help a child develop their joint attention skills. Below are a list of activities that I commonly use in my lessons:
- Playing with bubbles — Bubbles are very useful as they help get the child’s attention. After blowing the bubbles, you can get the child’s attention by popping the bubble and saying “Pop, goes the bubble” You can also sing it or use different intonations. This makes it exciting for the child. You can also try to get the child to imitate you in popping the bubbles and build their imitation skill. To encourage this process, you can first demonstrate the action that you are doing, and verbally ask them to imitate it as well. It is also important to praise the child when they are doing well. This gives them the motivation to practise these skills in the future.
- Playing with a ball — This activity involves passing a ball with a child and encouraging them to catch and throw back the ball to you. If you find it difficult to capture their attention, you can do this activity while standing closer to the child. This makes the task easier and also allows the child to focus on you easily. This activity is best done seated on the floor with the child facing you.
During the activity, use simple sentences, that are delivered in a loud and clear manner, to instruct the child to catch the ball. Next, you can roll the ball towards them and see how they respond to it. If they pick up the ball, you can praise them for doing so as it is a sign that they are engaged in the activity. You can also describe the ball to them, using sentences like “Wow, this ball is so round!” and “This ball is blue in colour!” This introduces the object to the child and teaches them how to describe it. If they do not pick up the ball, you can demonstrate to them how it should be done by holding their hands and doing the action. Slowly, you start to encourage the child to either roll or throw the ball back to you. This activity also has the added benefit of working on their gross motor skills as well as hand-eye coordination.
Both the preverbal and joint attention skills can be imparted rather easily, as long as we are intentional about it. After all, these activities can be integrated into our everyday lives, especially during outings or during our play time with them. Helping the child to develop both these skills puts them in good stead to pick up important social skills in future, which would allow them to interact and communicate better with others in future.