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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 3, Lesson 5

Communication Skills

Communication is often referred to as language. Indeed, language is part of the domain of communication but includes other ways children, particularly infants and toddlers, let adults and other children know their desires, intents and ideas. Communication is defined "as the transfer of information between or among individuals; it may be verbal but with infants and very young children it might also be gestural or through the use of an augmentative device." (Cohen & Speciner, 1998 ). Language is the use of symbols which may be expressive or receptive.

Mother and baby on blanketAssessment of communication skills in young children previously was left to the speech and language clinicians in early intervention programs. However, the shift towards transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary service models, as well as assessment and intervention in natural environments, has created the need for all professionals to know and understand the area of communication (Crais & Roberts, 2004). Assessment of communication skills is no longer the sole responsibility of the speech and language clinician but needs to involve the family and all professionals interacting with the child.

Procedural Considerations in Assessing Communication Skills

  • There are numerous concerns related to traditional assessment approaches in the use of standardized and norm referenced instruments with infants and young children with disabilities (Crais & Roberts).
  • Standardized testing does not typically describe how children communicate in natural environments.
  • Young children with disabilities typically do not perform well in the area of communication with an unfamiliar examiner.
  • Sociocultural background of the child influences many aspects of communication, including when and how a child interacts with adults or strangers, the dialect used, and the way the child interacts with adults. For children who are non-English speaking, it is critical to determine whether the communication difficulties occur in the primary language and whether the behavior differs substantially from the norms and expectations of the child's own language community (Battle, 2002). It may be helpful here to examine the consideration of high or low cultural context. A high context culture relies less on verbal communication and more on nonverbal cues and messages and shared experiences. Within some high context cultures, silence is valued. Whereas low cultural contexts that exist among Euro-Americans rely on direct communication and verbal messages (Kalyanpu and Harry, 1999). These differences in interpersonal communication effect child-rearing and communicative interactions between young children and their caregivers. Thus children from diverse cultures may not have the communicative behaviors which are critical for formal assessment and must be kept at the forefront in the decision-making during the assessment process particularly in the communication domain.

Assessment of Communication in Everyday Routines, Activities and Places

Child riding toy car
  • Phonology - Phonology is the study of the sound system of language. Caregivers can notice the sounds infants and toddlers make. It is important to keep in mind that children between birth and three have the ability to produce most sounds. However the r, l and th sounds typically do not appear until 48 months.
  • Syntax - Syntax is the rules governing the order and combination of words to form sentences. One word utterances are typically produced by 12-15 months, two word utterances by 18 months and 3 word utterances by 24 months. These early utterances are not grammatically correct but they do communicate meaning and communicative intent (Crais and Roberts, 2004). For example a child will say "me go" or "eat cookie" or "Mommy with Daddy". Professionals can note the syntactic structure by recording a language sample and making an analysis of the syntactic complexity of children's language. According to Crais and Roberts, a good estimate of young children's syntactic complexity is to determine the mean length utterance (MLU). MLU is computed by dividing the number of morphemes in a language sample by the number of utterances.
  • Semantics - Semantics is the study of meaning or features that structure a language's vocabulary. Young children's early words relate to things that are meaningful to them such as names of people, objects in their natural environment, places they go frequently particularly those that they enjoy. Words like mommy, daddy, doggie, ball, and cookie are common in young children's vocabulary. Young children who are typically developing have acquired an expressive vocabulary of 50 words and a receptive vocabulary of about 300 words at 18 months (Cross, 2000).
  • Pragmatics - Pragmatics is the study of language in context and focuses on the intent of communication. While infants do not acquire words until the end of the first year, they are actively involved with people in their natural environment. Nonverbal exchanges between child and caregiver form the basis for later conversation turn-taking (Cross 2001). Between 8 and 12 months, infants' sound vocalizations and gestures begin to be used consistently and others begin to understand the intentionality of communication. At 12 months, children begin to use words to communicate their intentions. The use of words becomes more sophisticated the older the child gets. Between 12 and 15 months, children are using single words and between 18-24 months children begin to combine words to communicate their intent. By 21 months, children can maintain a topic of conversation 50% of the time (Crais & Roberts, 2004).


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