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Gordon Dutton’s Blog (9) The ‘Baby Talk’ method of teaching language

  • Young children learn from what they are focussed on, and not what we are focussed on.
  • impaired language-learning in children with no other difficulties, frequently arose because parents and not the child were setting the language agenda
  • those with simultanagnostic vision need the ’Baby Talk’ approach to begin to master language, and this can work even when they are much older

Simultanagnosia and Language Learning - the "Baby Talk" method

As a sequel to her successful post graduate research, a speech therapist called Sally Ward converted her work into a fundamentally important popular parenting manual called Baby Talk.

She recognised the critical importance of giving young infants focussed learning time with 100% uninterrupted attention. She also realised that babies and young children learn new language most effectively when their own experiences are enhanced by matching words.

There are a number of things one needs to recognise about young infants:

  • They are learning very fast.
  • They pick up on language.
  • Their vision is developing in a number of ways.

Both clarity (acuity) and the ability to see contrast and differentiate colour are progressively improving. While baby books showing single items on a page are tacitly acknowledging that very young children are 'one thing at a time people'. They learn from singularities.

Sally Ward also highlights that infants cannot learn from what the grown ups looking after them are looking at or attending to, but they learn from what they are attending to.

This is the most important thing to recognise.

Young children learn from what they are focussed on, and not what we are focussed on.

This means that children taught by adults who are 'singing from their own hymn sheet', don't learn very much, because the adult and the child are effectively intellectual ships passing in the night.

What has this got to do with the older child who may have simultanagnostic vision, and does not talk.


Baby books, which have been found to be so effective, and are fully accepted as tools for infant learning, are telling us that during early visual development babies are simultanagnostic too.

Imagine now that you have simultanagnosia.

As you look around you see single items that draw your attention.

You are looking at a cup.

That is all you see at that moment.

You have no language (yet).

Someone says:

"Drink up your milk."

What does that mean?


But your mother, who knows what to do, says 'Cup' (and nothing else), just after you have looked at the cup and are reaching for it.

You make the link!

You learn the word.

Children with limited visual attention and limited language skills need to have their visual and tactile experiences drawn together, by meaningful singular consistent words that match and complement their experiences in real time.

Only parents know what their child has learned and knows, and this is particularly true for children with visual and intellectual disabilities.

So, it is first and foremost parents, who need to learn this trick, and to apply it to what they know their child has yet to learn, and to embed it in what their child has already learned.

What Sally Ward recognised, was that impaired language-learning in children with no other difficulties, frequently arose because parents and not the child were setting the language agenda.

The parents were naming things that they were looking at, but not the child.

Simply by reversing the process, and during short one-to-one sessions together, providing an 'in-tray' of things to put words to, then naming each one as the child gave it attention, as well as naming actions the child was making, the language of the children that she was helping, took off!

So think of the older child who can give attention to only singular items.

What do we need to do?

Name the item the child is looking at, or the action the child is making with singular consistent words. And repeat and repeat and repeat, until it is clear that when the adult uses that word, the child understands!

Language learning has started!

Progress is made by using the same approach for new words, but using the learned words in context.

The piece on this website Zoom In Zip Up Zoom Out provides a way of helping children with probable simultanagnostic vision and very limited attention to learn about new environments, and the excerpt below gives a real life practical account of how this approach is proving very successful in a boy called Connor, who has profound previously unrecognised probable simultanagnosia.

It also recognises, perhaps for the first time, that those with simultanagnostic vision need the 'Baby Talk' approach to begin to master language, and this can work even when they are much older. Connor started learning language in this way when he was 7 years old, and is now making rapid progress in his understanding. Before that he had no language.

Excerpt from 3Z Zoom In Zip Up Zoom Out
Understanding what a horse is, is the first attempt at teaching Connor how to attribute multiple experiences to one thing, and in turn develop a better informed more complex (right temporal) knowledge. I started with one word, and one experience. The word was simply 'horse' but said very slowly and extending the consonants. I am teaching Connor to talk but it is very early days, however he has been extremely responsive. The word has to easily be connected with the action or experience. The word also has to be identifiable. Connor's processing is slow, so speaking at normal speed is too fast. Most people extend the vowels when speaking slowly, so horse would become hooooooooooorse, which to Connor would be ooooooooooo. Normally when I introduce a new word to Connor it connects with something he already understands, a clap or a bubble for example. With horse, I was taking the next step in introducing a new word with a new experience, which would be challenging. I extended the consonants - the easiest way I have found is just to say the word very slowly without the vowels - it sounds odd but Connor can really connect. hhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrsssssssssss. For some reason I said it with a strong West Country accent! I think I just wanted to word to stand out.

I took Connor to his first horse-riding lesson and just used the word 'horse'. The experience and word were at first both new and meaningless, but we had to start somewhere, and after months of building up a relationship of trust, Connor was happy to be taken somewhere unknown and trust me. At the stables Connor panicked, not knowing where he was or what was happening, but once upon the horse it was like he was in a trance. Had he not enjoyed the experience we wouldn't have continued of course, but with this small seed we would start building Connor's knowledge of what 'horse' meant.

Connor quickly connected the word 'horse' with his weekly lesson, and within only a few weeks we were at the stage where the only day the word 'horse' could be mentioned was a Saturday - or Connor would think we were going riding. As Connor got used to the word 'horse' I was able to speak it without extending it, just speaking clearly, and not cluttering the word in meaningless sentences.


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