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Preverbal Children (What are the “criteria” & How to identify Preverbal?)

American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013 concluded that nonverbal children, with intervention, may still have the potential to speak later in life and develop language skills in their teenage years.

When it comes to understanding the communication and language abilities of a child, it is important to distinguish the differences between the two. Communication refers to the exchange of messages between two or more people. We learn how to communicate before learning how to use a language. Some examples of communication at an early age of life would be pointing, exchanging facial expressions, and eye gazes. On the other hand, language is learned later, and it is a symbolic system which has distinct symbols and rules. In the initial stage of a newborn, language is learned as the sounds of words, then learning to associate the sounds of words to its meaning. For instance, the most common first words that a toddler can say: “ma-ma” and “pa-pa” may not yet be understood as referring to the individuals themselves. Pairing of these words are developed as they learn through their developmental years.

After understanding the differences between communication and language, we can now understand the meaning of preverbal children better. Preverbal children are usually younger - from the ages of 2 to 4. They understand communication and is able to communicate intentionally but do not necessarily use words to communicate yet. At this stage, language is still not learned and shared as they are unable to understand how sounds or words could be exchanged to communicate and deliver meaning. The right interventions introduced to help preverbal children would expedite their progress in learning to communicate.

So, how do preverbal children communicate?

Most commonly, preverbal children uses non-verbal skills to show their wants and needs. For example, consistently using actions such as pointing, looking at objects that interest them, and pulling on the caregivers for help. These are all intentional acts of communication as they are consistent, persistent, and in some way, acknowledge and recognise the other communicative partner. Furthermore, they also have the ability to spontaneously babble word-like sounds within context and hum to songs. They are able to vocalise wants and needs, even if it is in the most subtle ways, such as producing the /b/ sound for Bubbles.

In comparison, nonverbal children are usually older and do not have the ability to communicate through vocalisation. They might have a voice but are unable to use it for speech. In the long run, they often rely on visual support or assistive technologies to communicate effectively. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that some preverbal children could have delayed development of speech. Hence, try to hold back premature judgements and keep on encouraging vocalisations from your child. Ultimately, we want to teach every child with the belief that they have the potential of producing speech.

There are ways to encourage preverbal children to speak up and vocalise their wants and needs. One of the most useful and effective ways would be teaching vocal imitation or echoics. This refers to the imitation of sounds, words and phrases, such as the sounds of ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, and etc. Preverbal children might have weak oral muscle control resulting in the unclear sounds, babbles, or words. Firstly, to teach vocal imitation or echoics, find opportunities to encourage your child to speak. For example, when your child wants something from you, encourage them to request for it. This gives them motivation to induce speech with minimal stress. Imitate the beginning sound or the name of the item your child wants, depending on how well they can echo, and ensure your child tries to do the same before giving them the item. They don't have to do it perfectly before you give it to them! Remember that we want to minimise stress for them, so if you're demanding for them to verbalise their requests, it may, in fact, discourage them from trying to speak. Secondly, when you are teaching labels to your child, words such as car, ball, bubbles, and etc., you can take the opportunity to encourage speech. You could use pictures, cards, or videos to teach labels and similarly prompt your child to repeat after the sounds, or words if possible. Make sure to also praise your child when they successfully vocalise the initial sounds of a word - it is the first step to speech!

In fact, these techniques of communication can also be used for nonverbal children. It is a long held belief that if your child does not start speaking at the age of 4, there is no hope of being verbal. However, a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013 concluded that nonverbal children, with intervention, may still have the potential to speak later in life and develop language skills in their teenage years.

I hope this article gave you an understanding of preverbal children, and how you, as a parent, teacher, or caregiver, could help them maximise their communication skills. Also, never underestimate your child’s ability to learn, especially at a young age. With consistent patience, effort, and time, I am sure there is the potential to learn well!

Written by Mabel


  • Wodka, E. L., Mathy, P., & Kalb, L. (2013). Predictors of Phrase and Fluent Speech in Children With Autism and Severe Language Delay. Pediatrics, 131(4). doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2221

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