expressive language

Exploring Expressive Language with a Speech Therapist

Posted on
February 17, 2023
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Expressive language is what we say – to communicate our wants and needs. Expressive communication can be written, spoken or signed. It’s the ability to produce and use words that listeners can understand. In this blog, we’ll tell you more about what is expressive language, difference between receptive and expressive language and signs to recognise when a expressive language disorder may be present.

What is expressive language

The use of language is known as expressive language. It can be used through written, spoken and signed language. Examples of expressive communication can include telling someone a story, retelling your dream and asking someone a question. In order for your expressive language skills to be successful, you need to be using appropriate vocabulary, apply correct grammar and use words in sentences for others to understand.

Why is expressive language important?

If your child has difficulty understanding words and/or has a limited or reduced vocabulary, they are likely to have difficulty using more complex abstract words as they get older. Your child is then likely to demonstrate frustration as they’re not able to express their needs and wants successfully. A language difficulty will impact your child across the curriculum that requires language, not just literacy lessons.

expressive language
Why is expressive language important?

What’s the difference between expressive and receptive language?

Expressive language is the ability to use language to communicate with others, whereas receptive language is the ability to demonstrate understanding of the world around you, including understanding words and language. Read more about expressive vs receptive language in our blog.

What does it mean if someone is struggling with expressive language skills?

While receptive language focuses on the ability to understand others, expressive language is geared towards communicating with the world. This can be in the capacity of communicating with the world using words/spoken language, gestures and body language.

Signs and symptoms of expressive language delays

A red flag that indicates that children are struggling with expressive language skills is when they have difficulty constructing narratives. Children are able to develop this skill as young children during bedtime routines when they listen to stories and are able to use the same format to tell their own stories. This includes sequencing events, establishing the plot and main idea, identifying characters, and thinking about the different roles/ perspectives of characters.

Individuals with expressive language delays may also have difficulty utilizing grammar, syntax (ie. sentence structure), and morphology (ie. the ability to produce the correct verb tense, such as “ing” in “the girl is going to the store),” vocabulary that is age-appropriate, and pragmatic language that is contextually appropriate. For preschoolers, it is especially difficult to access phonology reflected in learning nursery rhymes, as well as labeling common objects as well as actions, colors, numbers, and letters.

When thinking about toddlers or younger children, many may display expressive language delay by overusing gestures and having limited words in their vocabulary. By the age of 3, your child should be able to have at least 2 back-and-forth exchanges, should be able to formulate mixed wh- questions (who, what, where, why, where), can label actions of characters in books/ pictures, say their first name, and demonstrate an ability to be understood by most familiar and unfamiliar people.

What is expressive language in autism?

Expressive language in ASD can manifest in numerous ways. Oftentimes, this is called expressive pragmatic language as this is the ability to use social communication known as pragmatic language to express ideas. Language regression, or language loss can happen in an individual with ASD between 12-18 months and is a red flag to get a neuropsychology assessment and speech and language assessment. Because there is lack of intention behind communication, individuals with ASD can be misdiagnosed as having an expressive language impairment (as the primary diagnosis), (Modi and Belliveau, 2013).

When communicating with their peers, often it will be difficult for individuals with ASD to engage in a back-and-forth or reciprocal conversation.  It can also be difficult to find the words to advocate for their needs to help with communication breakdowns ( ie. asking for a break or walking away from a triggering situation), elaborating on ideas presented by others, and initiating conversation with others appropriately. Oftentimes, expressive language/ communication of individuals with ASD will be similar to peers and authoritative figures. They don’t have the same ability as neurotypical children to understand how to communicate differently with a person of authority than with a peer.


Important Milestones: Your Baby By Three Years | CDC

Speech and Language Impairments in Autism: Insights from Behavior and Neuroimaging - PMC (

Preschool Language Disorders (

Sarah Lyons
Clinical Director, United Kingdom
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