Communicating without words

By Stephanie Lee Slew

Advanced Speech Pathologist

Communication is so much more than just using words. While children start to use their first words around 12 months of age, there is lots of communication occurring well before their first birthday! Before children start to use words to communicate, they will use different behaviours to get their messages across. These behaviours are called interaction skills.

What are interaction skills?

Interaction skills are also known as pre-language skills. These include all the ways we communicate without using words. For example, gestures (waving or shrugging shoulders), facial expressions (smiling, eyes widening), imitation (copying), joint attention (child and adult focusing on an object at the same time), pointing and eye-contact.

When children are born, they start to use pre-language skills to communicate. They do not, however, realise that by using sounds, facial expressions and gestures they are communicating messages until they see their parent or support network respond to these messages consistently. It is when this happens that children start to use their interaction skills with a purpose to engage and communicate. When an adult responds to these behaviours, either using words or interaction skills, and the child responds, this is the start of an early conversation! These early back and forth interactions or conversations are essential for a child’s future language and social development.

What skills can be learned through early conversation?

These include:

  • Being able to start interactions or conversations with another person
  • Understanding how to respond when someone starts an interaction with them
  • Understanding how to take turns in a conversation
  • Understanding when a good time is to have a turn
  • Being able to share turns in a conversation.
  • Developing the skills to pay attention to their conversation partner
  • Being able to continue a conversation by asking questions and making comments
  • Being able to stay on the topic of conversation and introducing new topics clearly
  • Understanding how to send clear messages
  • Being able to solve misunderstandings by repeating what was communicated or communicating in a different way

How can we support children to develop their interaction skills?

  • Ensure the interaction is exciting and fun.
  • Respond to your child’s communication attempts with interest and excitement
  • Keep the conversation going by extending turns and providing opportunities for you and your child to have turns.

Specialist communication services

Learn more about our range of speech pathology services to provide support to people who have difficulty communicating and swallowing.