This article is the second in a series about helping your child with a visual impairment who has delays in the development of communication skills. This article focuses on the transition from nonverbal behavior to the use of single words.

Your baby’s first word! What a celebration! The first words your child speaks not only mark an important developmental step for your child, but they also touch your heart in special ways. If your child was born without vision, his first words might be an assurance that he is going to be okay because if he can talk, he can take care of himself. First words help your child personally connect with you. “Mama” or “Dada” identifies you as his parent. “Baba (bottle)” helps you know what your child wants. “Owie” brings you running to see what hurts so you can help. “Nigh’-Nigh’” sweetly brings your child’s day to a close. A child’s first two or three words usually emerge between 12 and 18 months of age. Over the next six to 12 months, development is often measured by the first 50 words that your child uses consistently in his speech. Your child’s first 50 words make up what is called his expressive vocabulary. He may understand many other words but not use them to communicate—those words make up his receptive vocabulary.

When a child’s expressive vocabulary consists of 50 words, he can begin to combine words into two- and three-word phrases. Word combinations help to clarify your child’s messages to you as well as demonstrate what he is learning about his world. See “Expanding Meaning by Combining Words” for more information.

Development of the First 50 Single Words

Research on early language development in sighted children has typically included lists and categories of a child’s first words. Parents tend to model words in the context of daily living activities, play routines (like “chase” and “tickle” games), and personal experiences. As you model words that describe or name the objects and actions in your child’s environment and activities, you support his understanding of words. Directions such as “Give me the ball” and “Put on your coat,” and comments like “The blanket is soft,” help your child learn that these and similar words “fit,” or are paired with, specific experiences. This process is referred to as the development of word meaning. Single words can be used to label items and answer questions (such as “What’s that?” and “What are you doing?”) as well as to communicate about a child’s wants and needs.

The Meaning of the First 50 Words

First words tend to be names or labels for things (nouns/objects) and less often action words (verbs/actions) or descriptive words. First words represent the experiences your child has and the words that you have spoken to describe those experiences. You, like most parents, will tend to name things that your child interacts with, that he is touching or that are touching him. You will also describe movements that your child’s body makes and actions he performs on objects and with people. Sighted children can visually scan the environment, or they can visually focus on one item that their parents are holding, using, showing, or pointing out in the distance. Parents of children with visual impairments make up for their child’s lack of vision by describing all of their children’s experiences. When you do this, you help build both a receptive (words that are understood) and a potential expressive (words that are spoken) vocabulary.

The following are examples of categories of words that are typically seen in samples of the first 50 words:

  • People’s names: Mommy, Daddy, baby
  • Drinks and foods: Milk, juice, banana, cookie
  • Social words: Hello, bye-bye, yes, no, thank you
  • Descriptions: More, all gone
  • Animals: Dog, cat
  • Objects and toys: Ball, book
  • Vehicles: Car
  • Daily living activities: Bath, brush
  • Clothing: Shoe, hat
  • Body parts: Nose, eye
  • Modifiers: Hot, big

You will also support the meaning of words like “want” and “more” and “help” as you interpret your child’s nonverbal messages.

Communicating Wants and Needs Using the First 50 Words

As your child is learning that words have meaning, he is also learning that he can communicate his needs and wants using those same single words. Some words may only be used as labels or names of objects and actions, but many can be used to communicate a message, just as nonverbal gestural behaviors did in the earlier stage of development.

Here are some examples of single words your child might use to send different messages to you:

  • Gain attention: “Mommy,” “look,” “come”
  • Tell what he wants or needs: “Cookie,” “juice,” “help”
  • Tell what he wants to do: “Swing,” “go,” “open”
  • Tell what he doesn’t want: “No;” “uh-uh,” “all done”
  • Socially engage with people:“Hi,” “bye,” “thank you”
  • Tell how he feels: “Happy,” “mad,” “sad”
  • Tell what hurts: “tummy,” “head,” “owie”

Tips for Supporting the Development of First Words in Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

No matter the size of your child’s expressive vocabulary, you can help to support the development of new words. As a parent, you want your child to begin talking so he can tell you what he needs and wants and let you know how he feels. There are usually three main goals for the development of first words used to communicate intentionally:

  • Teach new words (increase the number of single words he uses)
  • Support the message or intent of the words (teach words that communicate wants and needs)
  • Teach the use of the words in different settings and activities and with different people

Here are some tips for helping your child meet these goals:

  • As you observe and interact with your child, use words to label and describe the social and non-social aspects of his experience and context. Pairing words with an experience helps establish meaning and prepares your child to use words to communicate his own intent.
  • Anticipate your child’s needs by reading his nonverbal behaviors and modeling words that might express those needs: “You want X.” “You want to (action).” “You don’t want Y.” “You want more.”
  • Create daily routines where the same vocabulary can be modeled multiple times a day. Use action routines singing songs and saying rhymes, then pause in the middle or at the end of the routine so your child might “fill in the blank” or initiate the routine again. Share the words and the routines with friends, family, caretakers, and teachers so your child can experience the same routines in different settings and with different people.
  • When modeling (speaking) a word that you want your child to practice, be sure to say the word at the moment your child touches the object, moves, or hears the sound. Without sight, your child can’t see what you are talking about, so the word needs to be paired with the experience.
  • There are two ways you can teach single words:
    • Provide a model and wait for your child to spontaneously imitate the word. Say the word, then pause and allow your child time to process the meaning. If your child does not imitate the word right away, repeat the word and then add more language.
      Example 1: “More” [pause/wait] “More. You want more juice.”
      Example 2: “Ball” [pause/wait] “Ball. Here comes the ball.”
    • Direct your child to repeat the word following your model. Give a direction, asking him to imitate your model. Example: “More. Say ‘more.’” Example: “Ball. Say ‘ball.’” If your child needs help saying the word, you might say the first sound following your model of the word (Ex. “Do you want more? Mm….?”)
  • Reinforce all of your child’s attempts at imitating the word you have modeled. Example 1: “Yes. More. You want more juice!” Example 2: “Ball. You want me to roll the ball.”
  • Choose the words that best help your child meet his communication needs. Model words that would allow your child to request an object/item (“juice” or “ball”) or an action (“go” or “up”), request “help” or “more,” or call attention to himself (“look”).

As your child transitions from nonverbal communication behaviors to single words, you will most likely feel more connected with your child and feel like you can meet his needs more easily. Single words give you just the right amount of information to do more than guess what he wants. When your child begins to combine two or more words, you will find that his messages become even more specific.