Understanding Expressive and Receptive Language Delays

Children begin to develop their language skills at an early age. Through their first words, gestures and babbling, they are starting to express their needs and wants. Similarly, they are also receiving information from their parents and respond to this information by laughing, looking and even repeating sounds and words. From these early stages it is clear to see how expressive and receptive language helps us form an understanding of our world while allowing us to share our thoughts, feelings, wants and needs. But what if your child experiences difficulties with their expressive and receptive language skill development?

Some children may have difficulty using words, sentences and gestures to convey meaning and messages to others. They may also have difficulties with understanding language and words and find it hard to follow instructions at home or within an educational setting. This could indicate an expressive and / or receptive language delay, which can impact their ability to convey their needs and wants clearly, attend various activities and engage in meaningful interactions with others.

To help build an understanding of expressive and receptive language delays, we will take a look at the difference between expressive and receptive language, language development milestones, signs of language delays, and strategies to help build your child’s language skills.

What is Expressive Language?

Expressive language refers to the way your child may ‘express’ or use language (both verbal and nonverbal) to convey their thoughts and feelings. It can be as simple as your child pointing to a toy they may like, and as they grow, they may start to use more complex signs, gestures, words, symbols or drawings to communicate with you.

Expressive language is also important when it comes to your child developing positive interactions and relationships with others. Much of this can be reliant on your child’s ability to formulate their thoughts into words and sentences that are grammatically correct and easy to understand.

What is Receptive Language?

Receptive language refers to the way your child ‘receives’, understands and processes information delivered through sounds, words, signs, gestures or symbols. Often, receptive language involves listening to and following instructions.

Think of it like this, if expressive language is the ‘output’, receptive language is the ‘input’ and how your child can comprehend this information through verbal and nonverbal language. During typical development, a child will generally begin to understand language before they start using it.

Language Development

We know that each child’s language development occurs at their own rate, but referring to the basic language milestones can help you monitor your child’s progress and build an understanding of language delays:

Language Milestones

0 – 3 months

Your baby will generally be ‘cooing’, smiling at familiar faces, may have a different cry for different needs and may clam when spoken to by familiar people.

3 – 6 months

Your baby will begin to make different ‘babbling’ sounds, vocalise excitement and displeasure, giggle during interactions and their eyes may start to follow the direction of sounds and voices.

6 months – 1 year

Your baby may begin to utilise speech to gain attention and babbling will start to evolve into recognisable words ie. Ma-ma, Da-da. They may recognise facial expressions and tones of voice, and will begin to recognise the names of certain objects like their favourite toy. This is also that fun time when your baby loves playing games like peek-a-boo, imitates various speech sounds and takes turns vocalising with others.

1 year – 18 months

Your child will begin to respond to familiar requests (i.e. one to two step instructions) and their name and understand gestures like waving goodbye. They may begin to communicate their needs by using single words and may start shaking their head to indicate ‘no’. They will also be able to point to objects when you name them.

18 months – 2 years

Your child may now have approximately 50 – 200 words in their vocabulary and are able to name everyday objects. They will be able to respond appropriately to simple yes / no questions, and start asking ‘what’s that?’

What are the Signs of Language Delays?

Now that we understand what the basic milestones are, we can look at language delays. Essentially, expressive and receptive language delays are the most common, and may present in your child as difficulty expressing their needs verbally and / or difficulty understanding and following instructions.

While the above indicates what can be main indicators of expressive and receptive language delays, there are other signs to look out for.

An expressive language delay is often easier to detect as signs may include:

  • Your child has difficulty with forming sounds and linking words
  • Your child has a limited vocabulary compared to other children their age
  • Your child may use sounds like ‘um’ and general words like ‘stuff’ rather than more specific words
  • Your child may leave out key phrases or words and tell stories with jumbled and missing information
  • Your child becomes frustrated easily when trying to communicate their thoughts
  • Your child has trouble finding the right words to use when telling or story

In younger children, receptive language delays can often be harder to spot as children under the age of two are not generally asked to follow complex instructions. However, there are some signs to be aware of, including:

  • Your child has difficulty attending and listening to language
  • Your child struggles to pay attention during group time at preschool
  • You child finds it challenging to listen during shared story time
  • Your child has difficulty following instructions that other children the same age can follow
  • Your child responds to questions by repeating the question and / or giving unusual answers

What Can I Do If I Suspect a Language Delay?

Expressive and receptive language skills are essential components of successful communication. If your child has difficulties communicating their needs, engaging with others and following instructions, they may find it difficult to pay attention within educational settings, build important literacy skills, participate in age-appropriate activities and forge meaningful friendships. This can lead to self-esteem and confidence issues, and perhaps challenging behaviours based on frustration and feelings of isolation.

If you suspect your child is experiencing difficulties with their expressive and / or receptive language skills, it is important to seek assistance from a speech pathologist. The A Growing Understanding speech pathologists work with families to develop specific, meaningful, and functional goals and strategies to help develop your child’s expressive and receptive language skills. These goals and strategies align with your child’s interest and incorporate home-based activities where you can work on these skills during daily occurrences like mealtime, bath time and story time.

Baby's Speech and Language Skills

As your child develops their language skills, we work with families to help you utilise alternative methods of communication. This could include the use of visuals (pictures/symbols), signs and gestures. Anything to help your child reach their goals and become confident communicators.

It is also important to know that you, as the number one communication partner in your child’s life, can play a big part in helping them develop their expressive and receptive language skills. A few of our ideas that you can try at home with children and babies include:

  • Talk with your baby, sing, and encourage imitation of sounds and gestures as early as possible.
  • Start reading to your child when they are a baby and include shared story time into your daily routine. Make sure to look for age-appropriate books like soft or board books for babies, and picture books that encourage your child to look and touch while you name the pictures.
  • Use everyday situations to build on your child’s speech and language skills. By talking your way through the day, you can expose your child to numerous new words. For example, you could name foods at the supermarket, explain the steps you are taking when cooking a meal or cleaning a room, and simply point out objects around the house.

When it comes to your child’s language development, early intervention is best. If you have any concerns or are looking for ways to build a language rich environment for your child to grow, contact our team today.

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