A Baby’s Language Development: Motor Imitation

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One of the most important early steps in [language and] speech development is to copy or imitate movements.

Helping your child learn to imitate movements will improve eye contact and interaction. Set aside one or two periods a day to focus on movement imitation. Establish a time and place that eliminates distracting noises and reduces visual distractions. No specific time period is recommended. You know your child best. Remember these sessions should be enjoyable for you and your child.

To begin, sit at your child’s eye level in a face to face position. This will assist eye contact and help direct attention. Children may be in a high chair during these play sessions to focus attention and reduce the tendency to roam the house. The following activities are perfect for beginning to learn to imitate.

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Make a box of functional objects that can be used for imitation. Your box may include: cups, blocks, cars, spoons, balls, hats, small boxes to open and close, toy hammer, toy vehicles, etc.

There is no specific number of skills that your child must learn. The above activities are suggestions. Use your imagination!

The above article was written by Linda Mawhinney & Mary Scott McTeague, which can be found in their book, Early Language Development. You can find their book online.

For a helpful chart that outlines imitation and child development, visit http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/itf09cogdevfdimit.asp from the California Department of Education.

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A Baby’s Language Development: Joint Attention

kid boy and mother playing together with cup toys

What is Joint Attention?

From birth, parents respond to their infant’s coos, smiles, and movements as though they are meaningful communicative acts, and may smile, vocalize, or otherwise imitate their infant’s actions. These types of exchanges, sometimes called “proto-conversations,” are important for the infant’s developing emotional and social competence, including bonding and attachment, as well as early understanding of turn-taking and meaningful communication.

Beginning around six months, as infants become more mobile and start to explore the world around them, the focus of their attention shifts to the objects in their environment. Soon after that, they begin to coordinate attention between caregivers and objects in a meaningful way by looking, for example, back and forth between the caregiver and the object. This kind of shared focus between a child, a caregiver, and an object or event is known as joint attention. ¹

The Importance of Joint Attention

Infants’ ability to engage in joint attention is an important developmental milestone. Joint attention serves as a foundation for developing communicative competence and is one basis for the development of early social and cognitive skills.
For both hearing and deaf children, joint attention interactions are also crucial for language development. Specifically, the language children hear and see during this particular type of interaction with their caregivers is strongly linked to early vocabulary development. When caregivers share attention with their infants, and comment on the object or event on which the infant is focusing, infants acquire new words more easily and efficiently than if the caregiver simply attempts to redirect the child’s attention. Joint attention interactions that focus specifically on shared book reading have also been linked to later language development and reading ability.¹

How to Develop This Skill (Listening & Spoken Language)

  • Tell your child, “Look at me,” then tap his/her face and then your face. After you have given this verbal cue, give your child time to respond.
  • Point to a toy that your child likes and say, “look.” Gently turn his/her head toward the toy. When he/she looks at it, play with the toy or give it to him/her.
  • Hold up a toy or favorite item and say, “look.” Your child should look at you and then the object. Reward by giving the toy to your child.
  • Blow bubbles and say, “look.” Point as your child traces the bubbles. Blow more bubbles when he/she looks at you, repeat the word “look,” and point.
  • Blow up a balloon, but don’t tie it or let it go. Say, “look,” and release it when your child looks.
  • When your child becomes interested in books, point to a picture and say, “look.” Help your child point to pictures. The goal is for your child to look at you and then the picture. By sharing awareness and interest in the same picture or book you are achieving joint attention.
  • When another family member comes into the room, point and say, “look.” Reward your child for looking with a physical activity, such as tickling or patting.

Your child may need more time to understand what turning his/her head means, so don’t be discouraged if this skill is slow for him/her to learn.²

How to Develop This Skill (ASL)

  • Placing signs into the child’s current focus of attention;
  • Using attention-getting signals (tapping the child, waving towards the child) to establish eye contact before signing;
  • Physically setting up the interaction so that both the parent and the objects can be seen with minimal shifting (for example, sitting across from the child);
  • Waiting for spontaneous looks from the child before signing;
  • Providing relevant signs when the child spontaneously looks up;
  • Giving the child time to explore objects before eliciting attention; and
  • Using specific signs such as LOOK, along with a pleasant, positive manner, to prompt the child that linguistic input is forthcoming.¹


¹Visual Language and Visual Learning Science of Learning Center. (2012, June). Eye Gaze and Joint Attention (Research Brief No. 5). Washington, DC: Amy M. Lieberman

²Mawhinney, L. & McTeague, M.S. (2004). Joint Attention. Early Language Development. Super Duper Publications.

A Baby’s Language Development: The Importance of Eye Contact

Did you know that babies’ eye contact is linked to language development?

surprised-baby

Here are a few things you can do at home to develop eye contact with your baby:

According to Linda Mawhinney and Mary Scott McTeague,

  • “Sit face to face with your child. Attempt to place your child higher than you. Examples of possible positions: sit your child on your lap; sit in a chair and place your child in a high chair or booster seat; place your child on the couch or chair and sit on the floor in front of him/her.”
  • “To draw your child’s attention, hold objects near your face to help guide your child without verbalizing. Often words do not have meaning and for other children, a verbal cue could cause him/her to tune you out.”
  • “Tap your child’s nose and then your own nose. After the child looks, even for a brief second, reward him/her by signing/saying ‘Good looking!'”
  • “Put your child’s hand on your face to gain attention before giving him/her a direction to follow or a choice.”
  • “Eliminate or reduce auditory and visual distractions, like the television, radio, etc. This helps your child focus on you.”
  • “As your child increases eye contact with you, give him/her the verbal cue, ‘Look.’ When your child looks at you, respond.”
  • “Play ‘funny face’ games in the mirror. Your child can establish eye contact with you in the mirror.”

NPR also did a piece highlighting the link between babies’ eye contact and language development, which you can read or listen to by clicking here. The transcript from the radio show can be found below.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next, we hear about research that links babies’ early eye contact with their later language development. Reporter Michelle Trudeau tells us that a study appearing in the current issue of Developmental Studies pinpoints how this connection emerges.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

Researchers at the University of Washington videotaped babies to try and capture an important transition in infants’ social development. When is it that babies begin to follow the direction of another person’s gaze? Psychologist Rechele Brooks and Andrew Meltzoff studied about a hundred babies, nine-month-olds, 10-month-olds and 11-month-olds. In a quiet room at the university’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, Brooks would sit at a table across from a baby who’d be on Mom’s lap. Down at each end of the table, there was a bright plastic toy.

Ms. RECHELE BROOKS (Researcher, University of Washington): So I would look at the baby. The baby would be looking at me. And once I had established eye contact, that’s when I took that moment to turn to the side.

TRUDEAU: Turning her head to the left or right, looking at one of the toys on the table. When Brooks did this, she sometimes had her eyes open but sometimes she shut her eyes just before she turned her head in the direction of the toy.

Ms. BROOKS: Nine-month-olds were consistently looking at the toy whether my eyes were open or closed. They did not really care. They seemed to be following my head motion rather than whether I can make eye contact with the toy or not.

TRUDEAU: Now bring in the 10-month-olds, same test, very different results.

Ms. BROOKS: Ten-month-olds, they’re going to look at the toy with me much more often when my eyes are open than when my eyes are closed.

TRUDEAU: So just 30 days later and babies will typically start to lock on to your eyes to discover an object. Now Brooks also recorded if the babies made any vocal sounds at the moment they looked at the toy with her. She and the moms were completely quiet. Here again the nine-month-olds didn’t vocalize but the 10- and 11-month-old babies did.

(Soundbite of baby)

Ms. BROOKS: It’s as if the baby goes, `Uh-huh, we’re looking at the same thing,’ and they seem to be making an extra connection.

(Soundbite of baby)

TRUDEAU: And that extra connection pays off later on. These little vocalizations made specifically when looking at the toy with Brooks are linked to later language development.

Ms. BROOKS: When children make that extra connection, when they’re looking at the same toy as the adult but they also go, `Hmm,’ that little extra vocalization, those kids are the ones that end up being more advanced with their language development.

TRUDEAU: Understanding twice as many words at 18 months as the babies who did not make those little sounds eight months earlier. So it’s the two behaviors coupled together at 10 and 11 months, first following a person’s eyes and then vocalizing upon seeing the toy that powerfully predicts later language comprehension. Developmental researcher Peter Mundy from the University of Miami calls this important milestone joint attention.

Mr. PETER MUNDY (Developmental Researcher, University of Miami): Watch how your baby begins to follow your gaze, and when they do follow, pay attention to that and respond to that because that’s a fundamental building block for language and social relatedness. And the more you can encourage it, the more fun you’re going to have with your infant and it may also have a benefit for their early development, as well.

TRUDEAU: Because it indicates, says Mundy, that your baby is beginning to understand your point of view and your intentions, essential early ingredients for a baby in becoming socially aware of other people.

You can learn more about language development in Linda Mawhinney and Mary Scott McTeague’s activity book, Early Language Development, published by Super Duper Publications.

Deaf Education: Writing Strategies for Literacy

In classrooms for children who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH), written language instruction is part of a rich literacy-learning environment. Written language instruction is not handwriting. It is an expressive version of language just like speaking. Instruction on how to form letters is handwriting. Written language starts with the idea that words have meaning and can be written down.

In Mayer’s (2007) article, “What Really Matters in the Early Literacy Development of Deaf Children,” the author highlights the importance of creating a rich literacy-learning environment and describes a classroom that: includes practices that are relevant, purposeful, and functional for the learner . . . [and] provide daily opportunities to experiment with reading and writing, linking literacy experiences and the active use of language (p. 424).

Here are two activities that teachers can try with students in the classroom or parents can try at home.

Writing Activities Restaurant and Jigsaw

Let us know what you think about these activities, whether you found them helpful or if you need help in another area of language/literacy development. You can write to us at gapathway@gmail.com.