Why is expressive and receptive language development important?

We use expressive and receptive language skills to communicate with others effectively. If a child has consistent difficulty understanding others or sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings, they may have a language disorder. A language disorder can be a receptive or expressive language disorder. To determine if your child has receptive or expressive language difficulties, it is important to understand the difference between receptive language and expressive language.

What is RECEPTIVE language?

Receptive language is the “input” of language, the ability to understand and comprehend spoken language that you hear or read. For example, a child’s ability to listen and follow directions (e.g. “put on your coat”) relies on the child’s receptive language skills. In typical development, children are able to understand language before they are able to produce it. Children who are unable to comprehend language may have receptive language difficulties or a receptive language disorder.

Children who have difficulty understanding language may struggle with the following:

  • Following directions
  • Understanding what gestures mean
  • Answering questions
  • Identifying objects and pictures
  • Reading comprehension
  • Understanding a story

There are several factors that influence receptive language development, including exposure to language, the quality of the language environment, and individual differences in language processing. Children who are surrounded by language (people engaging in conversation and interacting with them) are more likely to develop strong receptive language skills. This includes being exposed to a variety of speakers, engaging in conversations, and exposure to reading.

How to improve receptive language:

Here are some ways parents can work with their children to improve receptive language skills:

  1. Books and Audiobooks: Reading is a great way to increase vocabulary and improve listening skills. Listening to audiobooks is another way to improve auditory processing skills. Whenever possible, ask your child follow up questions about what they read or heard.

  2. Listening Games: Play listening games, such as ” Simon Says,” “I Spy,” or "Bop It" to help your child improve their listening skills.

  3. Conversations: Encourage your child to pay attention to the speech of others in conversations. Challenge them to remember details and ask related follow up questions. 

  4. Visuals: Use visuals, such as pictures or videos, to help your child understand spoken language.

  5. Gestures and Facial expressions: Use gestures and facial expressions when speaking to help illustrate the meaning of words. Point out the gestures and facial expressions of others in pictures and help your child understand the meaning behind them. 

  6. Everyday Opportunities: Take advantage of daily routines, such as meal times and car rides, to tell stories, have conversations and ask questions of your child. For children with receptive language difficulties, a predictable routine will help them understand the language around them. 

If you suspect that your child may need additional help, speech and language therapy is highly effective in improving receptive language skills. A speech-language pathologist will use a variety of informal and formal assessments to determine a child’s specific receptive language weaknesses.

A comprehensive treatment plan is created for each child. Goals may focus on attention and concentration, vocabulary, understanding of grammar, figurative language, comprehension strategies and following directions.

Speech therapy for receptive language is specific to each child’s unique needs. Improving receptive language skills will allow a child to fully and independently participate in their daily activities.

What is EXPRESSIVE language?

Expressive language is the “output” of language, the ability to express your wants and needs through verbal or nonverbal communication. It is the ability to put thoughts into words and sentences in a way that makes sense and is grammatically correct. Children that have difficulty communicating their wants and needs may have expressive language difficulties or an expressive language disorder. Expressive language disorders in young children are often identified when children are not meeting their developmental milestones. 

Children who have difficulty producing language may struggle with the following:

  • Asking questions
  • Naming objects
  • Using gestures
  • Using facial expressions
  • Making comments
  • Vocabulary
  • Syntax (grammar rules)
  • Semantics (word/sentence meaning)
  • Morphology (forms of words)

How to improve expressive language:

Here are some ways parents can work with their children to improve expressive language skills:

  1. Conversation: Encourage your child to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with you. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a one-word answer (i.e. what did you do at school today)?

  2. Pretend Play: props, such as dolls, action figures, toy animals, and even household items are a great way to spark imiginate play. Ask your child to tell you what they are imagining. 

  3. Storytelling: Ask your child to tell stories, make up their own stories, or act out stories. If your child is having trouble, help them break down the timeline and sequence of events (i.e. “what happened first”). Children continue to develop narrative language skills throughout childhood. Stories become more elaborate and detailed as children get older.

  4. Everyday Opportunities: Take advantage of everyday routines, such as meal times and car rides, to practice expressive language skills. Games such as “highs and lows” at dinner are excellent for developing these skills. 

  5. Descriptions and Details: Ask you child to describe things, events, and people in detail. For example, if they are telling you about a video, ask specific questions that enable them to provide more detail (i.e. “what did the car look like.”)

  6. Speaking Opportunities: If your child is comfortable, encourage them to speak in front of others, such as family members. (i.e. “do you want to tell grandpa what happened at school yesterday?)

If your child needs additional help, speech therapy is effective in improving expressive language delays and deficits. Expressive language therapy focuses on giving each child the tools and strategies they need to communicate their needs, thoughts, feelings and ideas to the world.

If your child has difficulties with expressive and/or receptive language we always suggest you consult a Speech-Language Therapist for advice. REMEMBER THE BEST INTERVENTION IS EARLY INTERVENTION!

Published by - Anna Keno, Speech Language Therapist (BLST, MNZSTA, Reg.EPCNZ) Giant Leaps® NZ

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