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Supporting Pre - Verbal Children

By Alex Marris, Advisory Teacher for Communication and Interaction


We are now into the second year of children being back in school fully after two years of disruption. As a service we have noticed an increasing demand for early years support, particularly in relation to communication difficulties.


This reflects the picture nationally with Speech and Language UK highlighting that 1.7 million children in Britain are ‘struggling with talking and understanding words’ (Speech and Language UK, 2022). More and more pre-school and foundation stage children are presenting as either pre-verbal or as having limited language, therefore lacking the speech skills to express their needs and wants clearly.


Although pre-verbal children may not be speaking, they still may be displaying some of the fundamental skills needed for communication as depicted below. For example, instead of asking you for a toy using words, they may take your hand and guide you to where the toy is so they can show you. Or they might engage in turn taking activities such as passing a ball back and forth. These skills should be praised and encouraged as they are the basis for future communication.



Working with pre-verbal children can pose a challenge for staff supporting them as they may feel that they can’t help them in the way they would like or that feels most natural. It can also be frustrating for the children themselves as they can’t get their message across.

So, what can we do about it?

Here are eight tips for supporting children who are pre-verbal or present with limited language:


1. Gain the child’s attention


Some children have difficulties shifting their attention away from one task to another, or to listen to someone while they are playing. To help gain a child’s attention it is helpful to get down to their level and use their name to help them know you are talking to them. For some children a gentle touch on the arm or acting silly or making silly noises around them is also useful to help shift their attention to you. Once you have the child’s attention it helps them to focus more on what is being said to them.



2. Model good communication skills


The non-verbal communication skills identified above are the building blocks for children’s language development. Through modelling these skills in your interactions with them, you are encouraging the development of skills that are precursors to speech.



3. Keeping your own language simple


This will help support the child’s receptive language understanding. Children typically start by naming objects (nouns) around them e.g., ‘ball’, ‘cup’, ‘teddy’. This is then followed by adding an action word (verb) e.g., ‘teddy drink’, ‘kick ball’. This is expanded further by adding a linguistic concept such as colour, size, texture, position e.g., ‘drink red cup’, ‘kick big ball’. If your child is pre-verbal, it can be useful to name the objects the child uses to help them learn their names and encourage them to say them too.



4. The ‘add one’ technique


Building on the last tip, for children who are naming objects, try repeating back the word they use and add an action word. With children who are putting two words together encourage them to add a linguistic concept. During focused one-to one play, the ‘add one’ technique can be helpful. This is where the adult models sentences that are one word longer than the sentence the child uses. For example, if the child says, ‘car’ the adult could model back, ‘fast car’.



5. Talk about what the child is doing


Commenting on what the child is doing helps children to link the language they are hearing to the objects they are playing with, therefore helping them develop both their receptive and expressive language understanding. It can be useful to note that a child’s receptive language understanding is often a few months ahead of their expressive language ability.



6. Try to avoid asking lots of questions


Questions can be difficult to process for children who have limited language or are pre-verbal. However, it can be hard to avoid asking questions so when needing to, it can be helpful to provide two-way fixed choice responses for the child. For example, at snack time instead of asking ‘what would you like to eat?’, you could provide two options for the child to choose from such as, ‘do you want an apple or banana?’. If the child is also shown the two options, this will further support their understanding.



7. Provide opportunities for the child to communicate


As adults working with children, we want to help and support children and sometimes this is done by pre-empting what a child might need or want. This is great for the child as it helps them have their needs met. However, it can mean that we are not providing them with opportunities to communicate. For example, if all the toys are easily accessible then the child won’t ever need to ask for a toy as they can just get it for themselves. If the child can see the toy they want, but it is slightly out of reach, then they are more likely to use some form of communication to ask or gesture for it. Using clear containers can be good for this as the child can see the toys but can’t reach them. When singing a familiar nursery rhyme leave a pause before some words to allow the child the opportunity to say the words, ‘five little speckled … (frogs)’ for example.



8. Play


Play is one of the best ways for children to develop their language skills as through imagination they can access and use language they may not come across in their day to day lives. For example, pretending a cardboard box is a rocket zooming to the moon or pretending to visit animals in a zoo opens the door to a wide range of language opportunities. Play is also a fabulous way for children to develop their social skills and begin to take turns and share. As adults we can take the lead and initiate a play situation, or we can let the children take the lead.



At Applied Psychologies we support schools and educational settings to develop children’s communication and interaction needs by carrying out specialist assessments, delivering individual and group interventions and providing training for teaching staff. For more information contact info@appliedpsychologies.com



Speech and Language UK (2022) 1.7 million children and young people at risk of being left behind as they struggle to talk and understand words 1.7 million children and young people at risk of being left behind as they struggle to talk and understand words (speechandlanguage.org.uk)

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