Receptive / Expressive Language

Receptive language is the ability to understand words and language. It involves:

  • gaining information and meaning from routine (e.g. we have finished our breakfast so next it is time to get dressed)
  • visual information from our surroundings (e.g. dad holding the leash means that we are going to take the dog for a walk, a red light means stop)
  • sounds and words (e.g. a siren means a police car is coming down the street, the word ball means a round bouncy item we play with)
  • concepts such as size, shape, colors and time, grammar (e.g. regular plurals: dog/s, regular past tense: watch/ed)
  • written information (e.g. signs in the environment like “no parking”, written stories).

Why is receptive language important?

Receptive language is important for successful communication. Children who have difficulties with understanding may find it hard to follow instructions at home or at school and may not respond appropriately to questions and requests. In addition, difficulties at school with understanding may lead to attention and listening difficulties and/or behavioral issues. As most activities require a good understanding of language, it may also make it difficult for a child to access the curriculum or engage in the activities and tasks required for school.

You should seek therapy if you notice difficulties with receptive language in your child.

If a child has difficulties with receptive language they might:

  • Have difficulty attending and listening to language.
  • Not pay attention within group times.
  • Not follow instructions that others the same age would be able to follow.
  • Respond to questions by repeating what you say instead of giving an answer.
  • Find it difficult to listen to stories.
  • Give unusual answers to questions.

Expressive Language:

Using speech (also known as expressive language) is the use of words, sentences, gestures and writing to convey meaning and messages to others. Speech or expressive language skills include:

  • being able to label things in the environment
  • describe actions and events
  • put words together in sentences
  • use grammar correctly (e.g. “I went for a walk” not “Me goed for walk”)
  • retell a story
  • answer questions
  • write short stories.

Why is the ability to use speech or expressive language important?

Expressive language is important because it enables people to be able to express their wants and needs, thoughts and ideas, argue a point of view, develop their use of language in writing and engage in successful interactions with others.

You should seek therapy if you notice difficulties with speech and expressive language in your child. You may observe the following:

  • Poor attention and concentration
  • Gives unusual answers to questions
  • Struggles to get their message across
  • Struggles to retell an event in the appropriate sequence
  • Sounds immature
  • Poor behavior as the child cannot be understood by others
  • Difficulties making and maintaining friendships
  • Difficulties being understood by others
  • Poor social skills
  • Sentences are jumbled with words in the wrong order


  • Does not smile or interact with others (birth and older)
  • Does not babble (4-7 months)
  • Makes only a few sounds or gestures, like pointing (7-12 months)
  • Does not understand what others say (7 months-2 years)
  • Says only a few words (12-18 months)
  • Words are not easily understood (18 months-2 years)
  • Does not put words together to make sentences (1.5-3 years)
  • Has trouble playing and talking with other children (2-3 years)
  • Has trouble with early reading and writing skills (2.5-3 years)