Mikee Larrazabal 10 min read

Receptive vs. Expressive Language Development in Children

You might be wondering why your child can understand commands but does not say a word. Or maybe your child can say a few words but you cannot understand what they are trying to communicate. These are common concerns that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) hear from parents. We will discuss the importance of both receptive and expressive language skills, and we will provide tips on what speech therapy vocabulary goals, both examples of receptive language and expressive language goals, to target first.

Every child develops at their own pace.

We all know that every child develops at their own pace, but there are some general milestones that most children reach by a certain age. Language development is the process by which children learn to communicate. It involves the acquisition and use of words, sounds, and grammar. There are two types of language skills: receptive and expressive.

Receptive language development

Receptive Language

Receptive language refers to the ability to understand or comprehend spoken language. Examples of Receptive language skills include following directions, answering questions, and being able to understand stories.

Receptive language skills for following directions:

  • At 12 months, your child should be able to follow simple one-step commands such as “Come here” or “Give me the ball.”
  • By 18 months, your child should be able to follow two-step commands such as “Pick up your toy and put it in the toy box.”
  • At 24 months, your child should be able to follow three-step commands such as “Get your coat, put on your shoes, and let’s go outside.”

Receptive language skills for answering questions:

  • At 12 months, your child should be able to answer simple yes/no questions such as “Do you want more milk?”
  • By 18 months, your child should be starting to answer who, what, and where questions such as “Who is that?” or “What color is this?”
  • At 24 months, your child should be able to answer more complex questions such as “Where were you today?” or “What did you do at school?”

Receptive language skills for understanding stories:

  • At 12 months, your child should be able to sit still and listen to a short book.
  • By 18 months, your child should be starting to point to pictures in books and name familiar objects.
  • At 24 months, your child should be following along with simple stories and retelling familiar stories using key details.

Expressive Language Development

Examples of Receptive Language

Expressive language refers to the ability to communicate using gestures, words, phrases, and sentences. This includes saying first words, putting words together to make sentences, and using gestures (e.g., waving goodbye).

Typical expressive language development milestones

  • Prelinguistic skills (birth to 12 months) – This is when babies start to communicate their needs through crying, cooing, gurgling, and making other sounds.
  • First words (12 to 18 months) – This is when babies start to say their first words, usually around 15-18 months.
  • Two-word phrases (18 to 24 months) – This is when toddlers start to put two words together, such as “more milk” or “bye-bye daddy.”
  • Short sentences (24 to 36 months) – This is when toddlers start to put three or more words together to form short sentences, such as “I want cookie.”
  • Longer sentences (36+ months) – This is when preschoolers start to use longer and more complex sentences.

It is important to note that every child develops at their own pace. So if your child is not meeting these milestones, that does not necessarily mean there is cause for concern. However, if you are concerned about your child’s language development, please consult with a speech-language pathologist.

Receptive and Expressive language involves three different categories: Content, Form, and Use

  • Content refers to the actual words that are being spoken or written. This includes the vocabulary, concepts, and ideas that are being communicated.
  • Form refers to how the words are put together. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and word order.
  • Use refers to the purpose of the communication. This includes turn-taking, following rules of conversation, and making requests.

Some children may have difficulty with one or more of these areas. For example, a child may be able to understand most of what is being said but have difficulty putting words together to form sentences.Or a child may be able to say long sentences but have difficulty following rules of conversation such as taking turns or making eye contact.

All three of these categories are important for effective communication. However, research shows that receptive language skills are typically developing faster than expressive language skills. This means that children usually understand more words than they can say. For example, a child may be able to understand 50 words but only be able to say 15 words.

Why is it important to develop both receptive and expressive language skills?

Receptive Language Skills

Receptive language skills are important because they provide the foundation for expressive language skills. For example, if a child does not understand the meaning of words, it will be difficult for them to learn how to use those words in speech. In addition, receptive language skills are necessary for following directions, which is an important skill for academic success.

Expressive language skills are also important because they allow children to communicate their needs and wants. Children who have difficulty communicating their needs may become frustrated or act out in negative ways (e.g., tantrums). Furthermore, expressive language skills are necessary for academic success. For example, children need to be able to express themselves in order to participate in class discussions and ask questions.

There is a close relationship between receptive and expressive language skills. For example, if a child has difficulty understanding what others are saying (receptive language), they will likely have difficulty communicating their thoughts and ideas (expressive language). Additionally, if a child has difficulty producing speech sounds (expressive language), they may have difficulty understanding words with those same speech sounds (receptive language).

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What are signs that my child may have a receptive or expressive language disorder?

If a child has difficulty with receptive or expressive language skills, they may have a receptive or expressive language disorder.

Receptive language disorder is when a child has difficulty understanding spoken language. Examples of receptive language disorder include difficulty following directions, answering questions, and understanding stories. Children with receptive language disorders may also have difficulty with pre-reading and early reading skills.

Speech Therapy Vocabulary Skills

Expressive language disorder is when a child has difficulty using spoken language. This can include difficulty saying first words, putting words together to make sentences, and retelling stories. Children with expressive language disorders may also have difficulty with early writing skills.

Children with receptive language disorder are often diagnosed with expressive language disorder as well. This is because there is a close relationship between the two skills.

However, there are children with expressive language disorder who do not have a receptive language disorder. This can happen when a child has difficulty producing speech sounds (expressive language), but they can understand words just fine (receptive language).

Children with difficulties in either receptive or expressive language skills may benefit from speech therapy. If you are concerned about your child’s language development, please consult with a speech-language pathologist.

Speech Therapy Vocabulary Goals

A speech-language pathologist can help determine if your child has a receptive or expressive language disorder and provide treatment recommendations.

Speech therapy can help children with receptive and expressive language disorders by introducing them to receptive and expressive language goals.

Receptive Language Goals in Speech Therapy

In speech therapy, we will work on vocabulary development. Speech therapy vocabulary goals include teaching your child the names of objects, people, and action words (verbs).

Expressive Language Goals

We will also work on following directions. Examples of receptive language goals include understanding one-step and two-step commands. For example, “Please put your toy in the box.” or “Please get the toy and give it to mommy.”

Once your child has developed a good foundation of receptive language skills, we will then start to work on expressive language skills.

Expressive Language Goals in Speech Therapy

In speech therapy, we will work on expanding your child’s vocabulary. Expressive language goals include teaching them how to use words to describe people, objects, and events. We will also work on using words to express their thoughts and feelings.

With Speech Therapy Vocabulary goals, we will also work on sentence structure. This includes learning how to put words together to make sentences. We will also work on using proper grammar and verb tenses.

Lastly, we will work on storytelling skills. Expressive language goals include retelling stories in sequence and making up their own stories.

If you are concerned about your child’s receptive or expressive language skills, please consult with a speech-language pathologist. Speech therapy can help improve your child’s language skills.

Remember! Early Intervention is Key.

In the first 3 years of life, the brain is growing and develops at a very fast pace. It is during this time that children learn the foundations for speech and language development. The brain can change and grow in response to experiences. This means that if a child is not exposed to speech and language during this time, they may have difficulty developing these skills later on.

This is why early intervention is so important. Intervention can help prevent or reduce the severity of speech and language disorders.

If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, please consult with a speech-language pathologist as soon as possible. The earlier we can start speech therapy, the better!

If you think your child may benefit from speech therapy, please contact us for a free consultation.

Receptive and Expressive Language Goals at Home

  1. Read books together. This is a great way to work on vocabulary development and following directions. Make it fun! Try to make learning new words fun and positive experience for your child.
  2. Play games together. Games such as “Simon Says” and “I Spy” are great for working on following directions. And, they’re also lots of fun! 
  3. Label objects around the house. This is a great way to work on vocabulary development.  Talk, talk, talk! The more you talk to your child, the more they will learn. Describe what you are doing, ask them questions, and have conversations.
  4. You can take turns retelling familiar stories or making up new ones. Encourage your child to tell you stories. This is a great way to work on storytelling skills. 

If you would like more tips on how to promote receptive and expressive language skills at home, please consult with a speech-language pathologist.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you are concerned about your child’s receptive or expressive language skills, please consult with a speech-language pathologist. A speech-language pathologist can help determine if there is a problem and provide you with tips and resources.

Key Takeaways:

  • Receptive language is the ability to understand spoken language.
  • Expressive language is the ability to use spoken language.
  • Children with receptive or expressive language disorders may benefit from speech therapy.
  • Early intervention is key! The sooner speech therapy starts, the better.

Do you have any questions about receptive vs. expressive language development? Leave them in the comments below! And be sure to check back next week for another informative blog post.

Resources:

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Receptive language development milestones. Retrieved from: asha.org/public/speech/development/ReceptiveLanguageMilestones/.

Bloom, L., & Lahey, M. (2018). Language development and disorders (Fifth edition). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Kaganovich, N., & Schwartz, I. (2015). Receptive vs. expressive speech and language skills: What’s the difference? Retrieved from: speechtherapytalk.com/receptive-expressive-language-skills/.

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. (n.d.). Language development milestones. Retrieved from: nidcd.nih.gov/health/language-milestones.

Wetherby, A., & Prizant, B., (2002). The communication disorders continuum: From early signs to complex linguistic abilities of children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 22(03), 129-161. doi:jstor