Understanding Expressive and Receptive Language

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A girl in speech language therapy.

Language development begins in the early stages of infancy and helps us communicate with one another. Language encompasses how we create words and how we put them together, their meanings, and how we can apply language in various social situations. Both expressive language and receptive language help us understand the world around us while sharing our wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. When receptive language or expressive language does not develop correctly in your child, they may experience trouble understanding and reading others, sharing with others, and may develop a language disorder. While language disorders can affect their receptive language or expressive language, it’s essential to know the difference between them to begin addressing their receptive language or expressive language difficulties. Let’s take a look at:

  • The differences between receptive language and expressive language
  • Typically developing language
  • Receptive language and expressive language in children with autism
  • Speech-Language Therapy


What is Expressive Language?

Expressive language is your child’s ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings through the use of:

  • Signs
  • Words
  • Gestures
  • Drawings or symbols

The use of expressive language can be as simple as pointing to a person, food, or toy. While talking is the main form of expressive language, other strategies can be just as effective.

Expressive language utilizes many forms as your child gets older to communicate with family, peers, and caregivers.

  • Sign language
  • Images
  • Speech-generating device
  • Writing

Let’s break it down a step further. Think of expressive language as an output. This output of language is your child’s ability to express their desires and needs through verbal or nonverbal communication. Expressive language use is eventually forming these thoughts into words and sentences that make sense and are grammatically correct.


What is Receptive Language?

Listening is an essential component of receptive language but involves much more than that. Receptive language is the process of understanding information, whether through:


  • Sounds and words
  • Movement and gestures
  • Signs
  • Symbols

Children typically acquire various receptive language elements much faster than expressive language, making their receptive language vocabulary larger than their expressive language.

Think of receptive language as input – your child’s ability to understand and comprehend spoken language and the language they read. Receptive language includes listening and following directions. During typical development, children are beginning to understand language before they can produce it.


Expressive Language and Receptive Language in Typically Developing Children

Understanding how language skills typically develop requires looking into the critical first three years of your child’s life. Meeting milestones helps us understand where a child may begin to have difficulties with their speech and language development.


Speech and Language Development

During your child’s first three years, their brain develops rapidly. This timeframe is the most crucial period for them to acquire vital speech and language skills. These skills develop best when caregivers immerse them in various stimuli, including sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to others’ speech and language.

Crucial periods for speech and language development exist between infancy and early childhood. During these crucial periods, their brain is absorbing language rapidly and effectively. But, if children do not receive proper speech and language exposure during these critical periods, communication learning becomes difficult for them.

Each child’s language development varies but referring to a basic guideline for these milestones will help you monitor their progression:


Language Milestones for Children

0 to 3 months:

  • Smiling at familiar faces
  • Cooing
  • A different cry for different needs
  • Calms or smiles when spoken to


4 to 6 months:

  • Giggling
  • Babbling using different sounds
  • Vocalizes excitement and displeasure
  • Moves eyes in the direction of sounds


6 months to 1 year:

  • Uses speech to get attention
  • Uses small gestures to communicate
  • Imitates various speech sounds
  • Using one or two words appropriately and consistently
  • Enjoys playing games (peek-a-boo)


1 year to 18 months:

  • Shakes head “no”
  • Uses twenty-five words
  • Communicates their needs using single words
  • Points to objects when you name them
  • Follows straightforward one- and two-step commands


18 months to 2 years old:

  • Uses 50-200 words
  • Responds appropriately to “yes/no” questions
  • Asks, “what’s that?”
  • Able to name everyday objects



Language Difficulties in Children with Autism

Children with ASD often struggle with the ability to communicate and interact successfully with others. You may notice your child has difficulty developing introductory speech and language skills and understanding what others are trying to express. Even the simplest of receptive language and expressive language is a challenge for them, including:

  • Hand gestures
  • Making eye contact
  • Reading or conveying facial expressions


Your child’s ability to use speech and language tools effectively may depend on their intellectual and social development. Often, children with autism cannot communicate using speech or language, while others have limited speaking skills. And other children with ASD have extensive vocabularies, ability to communicate about a particular subject extensively.

Children with autism tend to struggle with the meanings and rhythms of words and sentences. They have trouble reading and understanding their peers’ and caregivers’ body language and vocal tones, limiting their ability to respond correctly, socially interact, or form connections.

Children with autism tend to exhibit expressive language and receptive language difficulties, such as:

  • Rigid or repetitive language
  • Communicate only about narrow interests
  • Uneven language development

The most common speech and language struggles children with autism experience are:


Producing Sounds

Roughly one in three people with autism struggles producing speech sounds effectively. They may:

  • Babble with word-like sounds
  • Parrot
  • Hum or talk in musical rhythm
  • May use the correct words and sentences, but with an expressionless tone of voice
  • Grunt, shriek, use harsh sounds and use loud cries
  • Be completely nonverbal


Limiting Language Abilities


  • Ability to memorize but lack understanding of words they use
  • Heavy reliance on echolalia to communicate


Helpful Strategies to Develop your Child’s Receptive and Expressive Language Skills: 

  • Develop Daily Routines: Consistent daily routines provide children with autism a predictable schedule. Structure helps them thrive while feeling safe and secure in their environments. A predictable routine allows your child to understand better and use language appropriate for each situation. It exposes them to a consistent set of words in a familiar context, strengthening receptive and expressive language practices.
  • Develop Joint Attention: Joint attention refers to two or more people sharing their attention with one object or activity together. You and your child can practice tuning into each other’s communications and reactions to the object or activity.
  • Social Interaction: Create new opportunities for your child to interact with different people. This additional interaction helps teach them social norms, exposes them to language naturally, and encourages them to communicate with others appropriately.
  • Language Development Through Play: Participating in various play types will help them explore and understand their environments in different ways. During play, encourage and model new ways for them to use their expressive and receptive language skills.



Speech-Language Therapy

Speech therapy helps improve your child’s overall communication skills. This practice dramatically increases your child’s ability to form relationships, respond appropriately in situations, communicate wants and needs, and function to the best of their ability in daily life.

Speech and language delays may be recognizable as early as eighteen months of age. If concerns arise, visit your child’s pediatrician for a referral to a speech therapist. Early intervention will have the most significant impact on your child’s success.


The Speech-Language Process: What to Expect

Speech-language pathologists are essential for your child’s autism treatment team. A speech-language pathologist will administer a comprehensive evaluation of your child’s communication abilities, looking at both receptive language and expressive language skills. Your child’s therapist then determines a course of treatment and individualized goals according to their needs and is often the first therapist to recognize additional concerns and make necessary referrals to other specialists and ABA services.

Your child’s speech-language pathologist will work closely with your family and additional caregivers throughout therapy, ensuring everyone is in tune and working towards your child’s primary goals. Your child’s therapist may recommend strategies and tools, including:

  • Massaging and exercising their lips and facial muscles to improve articulation
  • An array of electronic gadgets and tools to “speak” for your child
  • Sign language
  • Typing devices
  • Picture boards and other image-communication devices


Receptive Language Difficulties

Children who are unable to comprehend language may have receptive language difficulties or a receptive language disorder. During speech and language therapy, receptive language goals might include:

  • Following multistep and straightforward directions
  • Answering basic comprehension questions
  • Understanding basic vocabulary words
  • Making inferences or making predictions based upon a picture or story
  • Articulation of words
  • Communicating verbally and nonverbally
  • Ability to exchange ideas successfully
  • Communicating in ways which form and strengthen relationships
  • Communicating, playing, and interacting with their peers and caregivers
  • Learning to self-regulate
  • Understanding verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Understanding the intentions of others in various settings
  • Initiating communication without prompting from others
  • Understanding and recognizing appropriate times and places to communicate and how to appropriately communicate something
  • Developing adequate conversational skills
  • Respond to your child’s sounds, gestures, and gurgling from infancy
  • Repeat their sounds, words, and attempts at words, continuing the conversation to introduce them to new vocabulary and facial expressions
  • Talk about the world around them, in various environments, pointing to what you see or hear at the store, in the car, or on walks
  • Ask questions often and encourage their responses
  • Sing songs and rhymes often
  • Read to your child often. Select complex books as your child progresses with their language skills. Reading to your child allows them to hear words in different contexts, helping them learn meanings and model tone
  • Relate books to events, people, and objects in your child’s life. For instance, going to a doctor’s appointment or learning about caring for a pet. Encourage your child to point out characters or talk about what may happen next and why they predict it.


Speech-Language Therapy for Receptive Language

SLP is highly effective in improving receptive language skills in children with autism. A speech-language pathologist will use various informal and formal assessments to determine your child’s specific receptive language strengths and deficiencies. They will then create a comprehensive treatment plan for your child. These goals may focus on:

  • Attention
  • Concentration
  • Vocabulary
  • Understanding grammar
  • Figurative language
  • Comprehension strategies
  • Following directions

Speech therapy for receptive language difficulties is specific to each child’s needs, and a course of action is built around them. Improving their receptive language skills will help your child begin to participate in their daily activities independently.


Speech-Language Therapy for Expressive Language

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, and ideas to the world.


Expressive Language Disorder

An expressive language disorder occurs when your child has difficulty using words to communicate their needs and thoughts. Children who struggle with an expressive language disorder may:

  • Leave words out of their sentences
  • Mix up word tenses
  • Repeat phrases or portions of a sentence

An expressive language disorder can lead to additional problems in your child’s social settings and later at school. Your child may have expressive language difficulties if they cannot communicate even the most basic needs, including the need to use the bathroom or if they are hungry.

As they continue to grow, it is essential to watch for signs your child has difficulty producing language, including struggling with:

  • Basic vocabulary
  • Making comments
  • Asking questions
  • Naming common objects
  • Using gestures
  • Using facial expressions
  • Proper syntax (grammar rules)
  • Proper semantics (word/sentence meaning)
  • Morphology (the forming of words)


Early intervention methods with a team of ABA and speech therapists can properly diagnose your child’s difficulties and begin proper treatment plans to strengthen their receptive and expressive language abilities. Finding the therapists and programs that suit the needs of your child and family is essential. That’s why we, at Blossom Behavior Wellness Center, believe in providing all-encompassing services and support for the entire family. As a whole-child facility, we believe in providing a team of highly trained professionals who dedicate themselves to the wellbeing of your child and family unit. For more information on our programs, services, and abundance of resources, we invite you to schedule an appointment today.

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