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Receptive & Expressive Language

We use language every day to communicate with others and to convey our thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas.  Language development begins in infancy and continues throughout childhood to allow us to communicate effectively with those around us.  If your child has trouble communicating their wants and needs or struggles to understand what is spoken to them, a language delay or disorder may be suspected.  Our team of clinicians are experienced in diagnosing and treating language disorders and can help your child better communicate with the world around them.  


Receptive Language

We can divide language into two main categories: expressive and receptive.  First, receptive language refers to the language your child understands.  Think of receptive language as the ‘input’ - your child must listen to and understand what is being said to them.  Receptive language abilities typically develop more quickly than expressive language, meaning that your child will be able to understand more than they can say as their language develops.  A great example of when your child’s receptive language abilities are used is when they are given a direction to follow, such as “pick up your truck” or “put on your coat”.  Your child also needs receptive language skills to...

  • Respond to their name

  • Follow one-step directions (“put on your coat”)

  • Follow multi-step directions (“go to your room and get your shoes”)

  • Follow directions containing critical descriptive elements (“give me the big blue block and the small yellow block”)

  • Understand gestures (waving to signal “come here” or putting a hand up to signal “stop”)

  • Answer questions such as “what’s your name?”, “how old are you?”, and “what are you doing?”

  • Understand stories and narratives

  • Identify body parts, animals, clothing items, foods, etc.

  • Understand concepts of color, shape, size, quantity, location, etc.


Expressive Language

While receptive language refers to the language that your child understands, expressive language refers to the language that your child uses to communicate their wants, needs, thoughts, feelings, or ideas with those around them.  If receptive language is the ‘input’, expressive language is the ‘output’.  Expressive language abilities often develop more slowly than receptive language, meaning that while your child may understand certain words and concepts, they may not be able to say them themselves yet.  

Expressive language also involves much more than just talking - it can include the use of gestures, signs, facial expressions, body language, sounds, and head movements to convey meaning.  Some children are even able to better express themselves using alternative forms of communication, such as a picture system or a speech generating device (see our section on Alternative and Augmentative Communication - AAC for more information on this).  In early stages, expressive language may look like pointing to a desired toy or making a noise to ask for more bites of a snack.  In late stages, expressive language involves putting thoughts into words and sentences in ways that make sense and use correct grammatical structures.  

Your child needs expressive language skills to…

  • Ask questions (“where is my cup?”, “what’s that?”)

  • Comment (“I like it”, “It’s a truck!”)

  • Request for actions or objects (“pick me up”, “I want the car”)

  • Greet and say goodbye

  • Name objects and actions

  • Increase vocabulary 

  • Describe experiences and tell stories

  • Use correct syntax, or grammar rules

  • Use correct semantics, or word/sentence meaning

  • Use correct morphology, or forms of words 



Auditory Processing

Auditory processing disorder may present with similarities to a receptive language impairment; however, it is important to distinguish between the two.  Auditory processing refers to how the central nervous system obtains and uses auditory information, or the information it hears.  Auditory processing deficits are not caused by another root etiology, such as intellectual difficulties or cognitive disabilities, but rather they are a deficit in the processing of what is heard.  Children with auditory processing disorder may exhibit some of the following signs:


  • Difficulty following directions

  • Trouble understanding speech in noisy or distracting environments

  • Telling the difference, or discriminating, between similar-sounding speech sounds or similar-sounding words

  • Frequently asking for repetition or clarification of what was said to them

  • Higher performance in school with tasks that do not require listening, or higher performance on tasks once they know the expectations compared to novel tasks with new directions


A diagnosis of auditory processing disorder will also involve an Audiologist, a hearing professional who can administer tests to confirm the presence of auditory processing disorder and to make sure a hearing loss is not present.  Then, speech therapy can help your child in several ways.  These may include learning how to accommodate their environment to help them better understand what is being said, working to increase their processing skills, and using compensatory strategies such as attention and memory aids.  



Written by Stacy Lecznar, MA, CCC-SLP
A Gigi’s Kids Speech and Language Pathologist

Therapy Examples

Meet Raya

Ms. Amanda consistently goes above and beyond for my daughter. She knows exactly how to reach her and how to elicit her best effort. Not only did Raya improve considerably after working with Amanda, but she also had fun while doing it. And...Amanda helped guide us and her teachers with easy-to-implement tips and tricks to use in daily activities with Raya."


Julie, Mother of 3

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