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Visual Performance: Why Vocal Imitation May Not Be the First Skill to Work On to Develop Speech?

Without visual performance skills, expecting a child to imitate sounds or words in hopes to develop speech would be difficult as the child would not be able to pay attention and attend to your requests.

Achieving developmental milestones are crucial especially in early childhood, as it encompasses the fundamental steps to prepare the child’s readiness to face the world. It also helps parents to be aware of the child’s stages of development and recognize any potential red flags that may be hindering the developmental growth. These milestones on an individual level, could happen quickly or take a long time to achieve.

A huge developmental milestone is when the child is able to produce sounds, and eventually progress into developing speech and language. According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, at seven months to one year old, one should be able to produce and imitate sounds or words like “Ma-ma”, “pa-pa”, and to use babbles. At one to two years old, one should be able to use two words together such as saying, “more bubbles”, and between the ages of two to three years old, should be able to verbalise their wants clearly.

It is definitely concerning to parents when the child is not able to communicate or express themselves vocally at the appropriate age. While it is understandable that parents would work on imitations of sounds or words first, it is also important to look at other skills that may be impeding the progress of the speech development. Vocal imitation of sounds or words may seem to be the first step to eventually achieve speech, however, there are other critical skills to be worked on that contribute to developing eventual speech as well. This article will be touching on how working on visual performance skills may be the precursor to eventually develop speech language.

Visual performance is one of the key skills to develop as soon as the baby is born and it includes skills such as eye contact, attending and joint attention, visual discrimination, copying and imitation. These are some of the fundamental and necessary skills to achieve before the child is ready to develop functional speech and language. Using speech is a form of communication and before babies are able to produce sounds or words, they learn to use non-verbal skills to communicate, which will later support the speech and language learning. By using non-verbal communication, babies learn the meaning to certain gestures with the help of visual performance skills. Hence, without developing visual performance skills like eye contact and joint attention, the child may not be able to express themselves non-verbally - let alone communicating verbally. With consistent listening and attending to what adults are acting and saying, the more likely the child will learn to understand gestures and words and their meanings.

Here is an example of demonstrating no eye contact and joint attention skills - A toddler wants mummy to help to take a toy that is on the table, and instead of pointing and looking at mummy, he simply takes mummy’s hand to reach the toy and pass it to himself. This shows no social engagement involved and no intention to communicate his wants, not even non-verbally. Overtime, the toddler’s speech might be affected in several ways - difficulties with expressing himself, speech delays, or even difficulties in social interaction since there is no intention of communication.

In addition, visual performance skills can increase a child’s executive functioning which has influence on language processing and formation. Some examples of executive functioning includes working memory skills, paying attention, and organizational skills. These skills are intertwined with language development which could play a huge part in the speed of processing words and forming proper sentence structure.

Some activities that would encourage visual performance would be playing peek-a-boo, blocks imitation, matching and sorting, fixing puzzles, and imitating actions. These are great activities to increase attention span, joint attention, executive functioning, which in turn would help greatly with speech development as there will be a higher level of communication.

In conclusion, without visual performance skills, expecting a child to imitate sounds or words in hopes to develop speech would be difficult as the child would not be able to pay attention and attend to your requests. Working on visual performance skills increases the need to communicate non-verbally and verbally which encourages speech development. More often than not, children with speech delays or speech difficulties face poor visual performance skills. There could be the lack of motivation and interest to express and communicate verbally as well. Rather than only working on vocal imitations, take note of your child’s visual performance skills and work on them.

Written by: Mabel Chu.


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