Promoting early language development by enhancing joint attention from parents

Dear families,

This posting will review the literature on joint attention as a critical tool for early language development.  The different types of joint attention will be explored and discussion on how children develop joint attention will be conducted.  Moreover, typical early language development will also be introduced.  Finally, based on the findings from the literature review, suggestions and recommendations will be made for parents providing them with how they can better promote early language development for their child by facilitating joint attention.  In this posting, the hope is that parents understand the importance of joint attention and facilitating joint attention in order to improve early language development in their child. 

- Minnie

            Testing ancient Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) explained that language even existed 50 ka (Klien, 2017).  Language expresses observation, thoughts, feelings, and needs (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995).  Language is socially constructed (Benveniste & McKeon, 1965).  The ironic thing is that human cognition created language but language is a tool of the cognition process.  In other words, we use language for thoughts, a medium of all human symbolization, and acquisition of many other concepts (Carruthers, 2002).

            When we talk about language, we often refer to the verbal language.  In fact, language can be categorized into two colossal categories: non-verbal and verbal (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2014).  Both forms of language can be used for communication, however, the more sophisticated form is a verbal form (Berk, 2012).  For example, even a newborn lets us know if it's tired, hungry, in discomfort with crying from day one, but the first word of a typically developing child usually occurs at the age of one.  Non-verbal communication starts in infancy and persists throughout human life (Machado, 2007) while verbal language supports conveying messages consciously (University of Minnesota, 2016). 

            Another way to categorize language is expressive language and receptive language (Allen et al., 2014).  Expressive language refers express thoughts and ideas in a language form such as speaking and writing whereas receptive language means understanding other’s message which delivered in a language form (Smith, 2011).  Receptive language develops earlier than expressive language (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2014).

            DeGraffenreidt, Gransmick, Grafwallner, and O'Malley (2010) conceived child development into five closely linked areas: physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language.  They argued that children are born with tremendous potential and capacity for learning across all developmental domains.  For example, the progress a child makes in one area affects the progress he or she makes in another area.  Not one area of child development is more important than another which emphasizes the importance of a well-balanced nurturing environment.  For example, social development and language development support each other and vice versa (Prizant & Wetherby, 1990).  According to Prizant and Wetherby (1990), developing attachment is crucial for early language development while language development support young children’s building friendships and autonomy in children.  Moreover, mastering new motor skills changes children’s experiences and this allow them to practice skills relevant to language acquisition before they are needed for that purpose (Iverson, 2010).  Therefore, promoting language development is important not only for this single domain but also for other domains of development.

            Many researchers have tried to unveil the secrets of early language acquisition and found joint attention[1] to be a precursor to early language acquisition (Colonnesi, Stams, Koster, & Noom, 2010; Farrant & Zubrick, 2011; Morales, Mundy, & Rojas, 1998; Okumura, Kanakogi, Kobayashi, & Itakura, 2017; Scofield & Behrend, 2011; Rocha, Schreibman, & Stahmer, 2007; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986; Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013).  By measuring the frequency and/or quality of joint attention and the outcomes of language, they found a strong correlation.  Due to this, enhancing joint attention can be a way to promote early language development.

            In consideration for the importance of language development and correlation with joint attention, the following questions guide this posting:

            i) What is typical early language development?

            ii) What is joint attention and how does it develop?

            iii) What are some suggestions for parents who want to promote early language development in their child by enhancing joint attention?

Early Language Development

Infancy (Birth to 12 months of age)

            Infants start cooing at the age of two months followed by babbling at six months (Machado, 2007).  These types of language development usually accelerate at four months of age (Whitebread, 2012).  The preverbal communication is the foundation for the emergence of language skills (Prizant & Wetherby, 1990).  According to Prizant and Wetherby (1990), parental interpretation and labeling are important.  The first words usually occur around one-years-old (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2014).

Toddlerhood (12 months to 24 months)

            At the beginning of toddlerhood, new word acquisition is very slow; toddlers may learn a new word but at the same time, they may forget a word they already knew (Prizant & Wetherby, 1990).  At about 18 months, a sudden surge occurs in vocabulary growth (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2014) such as more words, combinations of words (Prizant & Wetherby, 1990).  According to Prizant and Wetherby (1990), toddlers can initiate and maintain communication.

Early Childhood (24 months to 48 months)

            At 24 months of age, he will begin to acquire fundamental skills related to organizing words and sentences (Prizant & Wetherby, 1990).  According to Prizant and Wetherby (1990), a child’s language becomes more exquisite and purposeful.  Due to this, a child’s social development blossoms through play and friendships.   

Joint Attention

            Joint attention is a part of non-verbal language (Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013).  Joint attention refers to parents’(caregivers’) and infants’ shared experiences on the same object or activity (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986).  Joint attention can be presented in various forms, such as mutual eye gazing, pointing, and gestures (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986) and there are two distinct aspects of joint attention; Initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention (Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013).  According to Mundy, Sigman, Ungerer, and Sherman (1986), initiating joint attention means capacity to gather others’ attention and share experiences through the use of the direction of eye gazes and gestures.  On the other hand, responding to joint attention involves following others’ direction of eye gaze, and/or gestures.

            Many researchers (Colonnesi, Stams, Koster, & Noom, 2010; Farrant & Zubrick, 2011; Morales, Mundy, & Rojas, 1998; Okumura, Kanakogi, Kanda, Ishiguro, & Itakura, 2013; Okumura, Kanakogi, Kobayashi, & Itakura, 2017; Scofield & Behrend, 2011; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986; Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013) revealed the vital role of joint attention in early language acquisition.  For example, Tomasello and Farrar (1986) revealed the vital role of joint attention in the acquisition of language.  In the study, 24 Caucasian, middle-class children and their mothers were recruited to local daycare facilities in the United States.  The children and mothers were given a set of toys to play with while they were being videotaped for a 15-minute time period.  Observations were performed using the same procedure when these children reached the ages of 15 months old and 21 months old.  In case of engaging joint attention with their mothers, toddlers produced more utterances per minute and maintained longer conversations.  From these findings, Tomasello and Farrar (1986) concluded that joint attention can scaffold early mother-child linguistic interaction.  

            Okumura et al. (2017) conducted a nine-month longitudinal study with thirty-seven 9 months old infants in Japan.  They were observing their responses to joint attention measured by a Tobii T60 Eye Tracker when they were 9 months old.  Also, their language was assessed through the Japanese version of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI) completed by their parents at 18 months.  Okumura et al. (2017) discovered that the more times infants at 9 months spent responding to joint attention, the larger the size of their vocabularies at 18 months.  

Joint Attention Development

            In a meta-analysis study which involved 734 children from twenty-five studies, Colonnesi et al. (2010) discovered that the correlation between pointing and language development became stronger as children got older.  For example, the ability to respond to joint attention occurs earlier than the ability to initiate joint attention (Bocha et al., 2007).  As young as 6 month old infants can follow the direction of an adult’s eye gazing (Morales, Mundy, & Rojas, 1998).  With the consolidation of attachment, their ability of joint attention continually develops (Prizant & Wetherby, 1990), between 15 to 18 months, toddlers are able to demonstrate highly coordinate joint attention (Lewy & Dawson, 1992).

            Pointing gestures also evolve along with children’s maturity.  Lisxkowski and Tomasello (2011) compared whole hand pointers and index finger pointers.  They concluded that whole hand pointing and index finger pointing are different in terms of quality of joint attention.  In fact, index finger pointing is a more sophisticated form of joint attention, therefore, and it is the first step of intentional communication (Lisxkowski & Tomasello, 2011).

            Cochet et al. (2011) conducted another study about the changes of joint attention due to children’s maturity.  They explained the interconnection between brain development, the changes of joint attention, and language development.  Over a five month-observation, Cochet, et al. (2011) found that children who experienced lexical spurt demonstrated higher rates of asymmetry preference of pointing based on the maturation of the left cerebral hemisphere.  They argued that present and persistence of hand preference corresponded to lexical spurt.  In other words, changes in the form of joint attention can predict changes in language development. 

Suggestions for Parents

Figure 1. Eye gazing – human vs. robot (Okumura et al., 2013, p.128).

Figure 1. Eye gazing – human vs. robot (Okumura et al., 2013, p.128).

            The socio-ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) provides insight into children’s development from a sociocultural perspective.  This theory acknowledges the ways that children are positioned within their families, child care settings, neighbourhoods, and the broader society, and how this impacts their development.  According to this theory, parents belong to the microsystem that directly impacts a child’s development.  In other words, parents are the most important and influential people in their child’s learning which includes language development.  In this session, some suggestions are made for parents who have a desire to promote their child’s language development through enhancing joint attention.

Be with the Child

Okumura et al. (2013) conducted an interesting experiment with Thirty-two 12 months old infants who were typically developing.  During the first experiment, they observed how infants responded to eye gazing from both humans and robots.  In this study, infants demonstrated a longer duration of object fixation.  In this study, Okumura et al. (2013) clearly revealed that the importance of humanness to facilitate the joint attention.  In addition, Farroni, Johnson, Menon, Zulian, Faraguna, and Csibra (2005) found that infants naturally had more attraction to the shape of the human face.  In this study, infants spent more time looking at face like shapes instead of

Figure 2. Newborns’ preference of face shape stimuli (Farroni, Johnson, et al., 2005, p.17246).

Figure 2. Newborns’ preference of face shape stimuli (Farroni, Johnson, et al., 2005, p.17246).

Have More Eye Contacts

Figure 3. Eye gazing of robots with and without eyes (Farroni et al., 2005, p.131).

Figure 3. Eye gazing of robots with and without eyes (Farroni et al., 2005, p.131).

            Okumura et al. (2013) did another experiment with robots and infants.  Sixteen 12 months old infants participated in this study and were observed to see how they followed the introduced directions of the robots with eyes and without eyes.  Even though the movements (head turning) of both robots were identical, infants only followed the robot with eyes.  Okumura et al. (2013) revealed that infants did not consider the robot without eyes as being an agent who initiated joint attention.  In addition, in the study that I mentioned earlier about an infants’ natural attraction to the human face, researchers found that the focal point was the eyes (Farroni et al., 2005). Therefore, eyes play a vital role to recognize parents as agents that exchange joint attention and focus.                                   

Demonstrate Warm and Sensitive Parenting Style and Ensure One on One Time        

            Farrant and Zubrick (2011) found that parenting style and the number of siblings had an effect on joint attention facilitating early language development.  In their longitudinal study, 2188 children and their parents were observed twice.  For the first and second observations, the median age of children was 9 months and 34 months respectively.  The more warm and sensitive parenting the parents displayed, the more joint attentions occurred during the first observation and the more use of words were counted at the second observation.  On the other hand, the number of siblings in the family appeared to have a negative impact on joint attention experiences and word counts.  In their study, the more siblings the children had, the less joint attention and less words were observed.  Farrant and Zubrick (2011) assumed it was due to lack of one to one time.

Read More Books

            Farrant and Zubrick (2011) argued that book reading is a more structured joint attention activity.  It requires simultaneous pointing, sharing of experiences and verbal labeling (Farrant & Zubrick, 2011).  In fact, Farrant and Zubrick (2011) found the correlation between book reading and more word counts among 2188 children whose median age was 34 months.  They concluded book reading is an outstanding structured joint attention opportunity which fosters vocabulary expansion.

Share Positive Experience With the Child

            Joint attention occurs more when parents display positive emotions.  Leaven at el. (2014) examined 73 dyads of parents and their infants (6 to 18 months old) in a laboratory setting.  Parents were asked to hold their infants on their laps.  They were observed on how they reacted when dolls were animated on the opposite side of the table.  Leaven at el. (2014) found affective and referential synchrony, in other words, they smiled more when they pointed at the dolls.

            On the other hand, Adamson and Bakeman (1985) observed 27 infants of ages 6 to 18 months playing with their mothers, peers and alone at their homes.  They found infants displayed more effective rates with mothers and peers.  Also, they discovered that high rates of positive emotions were displayed when infants shared joint attention experiences.  These two studies clearly explained that sharing positive experiences between parents and their children will not only help parents demonstrate more preferential behaviour but also, their young children will initiate more joint attention behaviour. 

Promote Non-Verbal and Verbal Language Simultaneously      

            Vuksanovic and Bjekic (2013) compared 25 late talkers aged 18-22 months old and 25 children who are five months younger than the first group but typically developing in a 10 month-longitudinal study.  Even though there was no significant difference between late talkers and typically developing children in terms of frequency of joint attention bids, late talkers demonstrated a negative relationship between joint attention bids and language function.  From this findings, Vuksanovic and Bjekic (2013) concluded that typically developing children use non-verbal and verbal language together for their communication whereas late talkers use one or the other.

            Based on this study, parents should be role models in communicating with their young children in both means.  In other words, parents should use facial expressions which match the verbal messages.  Also, using sign language and gestures while talking to young children can be beneficial.  Moreover, inviting children as active participants in communication can provide them with more opportunities to experience and to practice their non-verbal and verbal communication.


            The aim of this project was to promote early language development through enhancing joint attention by parents.  To achieve this goal, typical courses of early language development from infancy to early childhood were introduced.  Joint attention refers to sharing experiences on the same object or activity between parents and infants (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986) as a part of non-verbal language (Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013).  Joint attention has two distinct aspects; Initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention (Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013).  Both initiating joint attention (Colonnesi et al., 2010; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986; Vuksanovic & Bjekic, 2013) and responding to joint attention (Farrant & Zubrick, 2011; Morales et al., 1998; Okumura et al., 2013; Okumura, et al., 2017) have vital roles in early language development.  Like any other development, the development of joint attention evolves along with child’s maturity.  For example, the ability to respond to joint attention occurs earlier than the ability to initiate joint attention (Bocha et al., 2007).  Index finger pointing is a more sophisticated form of joint attention, and it appears later than whole hand pointing (Lisxkowski & Tomasello, 2011).  In addition, emerging more persistence of asymmetry hand preference (e.g., using right hand dominantly) of pointing based on the maturation of the left cerebral hemisphere corresponds to the period of vocabulary spurt in children (Cochet et al., 2011).

            Based on the socio-ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), parents are the most important and influential people in their child’s learning including in language development.  Therefore, some suggestions were also made for parents who want to promote their child’s language development through enhanced joint attention; being with the child, more eye contact, demonstrating a warm and sensitive parenting style, ensuring one on one time with the child, reading more books, sharing positive experiences with the child, and promoting non-vernal/verbal language simultaneously for communication with their child.  Through this project, the hope is that parents will thoughtfully reflect on the understanding of typical early language development, the importance of joint attention, understanding, and enhancing joint attention in order to promote language development in their child.

[1] Joint attention refers shared experiences on the same object or activity by to parents and infants (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986).


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