expressive and receptive language

Expressive And Receptive Language: How Do They Differ?

Posted on
December 6, 2022
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What is the difference between expressive and receptive language?

On a daily basis, everyone effectively communicates with others through expressive and receptive language skills. However, if an individual has difficulty understanding what others are communicating or sharing their own feelings, ideas and thoughts - the individual may have a language disorder. A language disorder can be categorised into two categories namely; expressive and receptive language disorder. In order to identify if your child is having difficulty with expressive or receptive language, it's important to understand the differences between the two.

expressive vs receptive language
Is your child understanding and expressing themselves?

What is receptive language?

Receptive language simply means understanding words and sentences. It is important for following spoken instructions. A child with a language disorder is likely to have difficulty carrying out instructions, in particular with long and complex instructions. They may carry out the instructions incorrectly or not at all. You may observe that they copy other children.

What are some examples of receptive language?

Children can often mask or hide these difficulties with understanding instructions. They may rely on cues within the environment. For example, in the winter the child will automatically put their coat on without processing the verbal instruction. Child might be able to follow their daily routine, but if those words are used in a different situation with or without the cues the child might struggle to follow. 

Part of understanding language is being able to demonstrate understanding of vocabulary, concepts e.g. colour, prepositions, sequence (first, next) and understanding question words and responding to them appropriately.

What is expressive language? 

Expressive language is what we say – to communicate our wants and needs. Expressive language can be spoken, written or signed. It includes the ability to use words and produce sentences that make sense to other people. Tasks such as telling someone our news, retelling of a familiar story rely on expressive language. In order to be successful in this area you need to be able to select the most appropriate vocabulary, put the words in the correct sentence order and apply correct rules of grammar. 

What are some examples of expressive language?

Speech (including speech sounds) and expressive language are independent of each other. For example, it is possible to have difficulty with pronunciation, but not stringing words together to form a sentence. Be careful not to assume that a difficulty with expressive language means there is necessarily a difficulty with understanding (receptive language) - some people can understand more than they can express. 

Why is expressive and receptive language important?

A child who has difficulty understanding words and has a limited or reduced vocabulary, is likely to have difficulty using more complex abstract words as they get older. A child is likely to demonstrate frustration because it might be hard for them to express themselves successfully. A language difficulty will impact a child across the curriculum that requires language, not just literacy lessons. Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is the name given to the difficulty of speaking and understanding for no known reason.

What can parents and teachers do to support those with these expressive and receptive language difficulties? 

Building up the child’s vocabulary is important for receptive and expressive language development.

  • Sharing books with a child has many benefits, including developing vocabulary and understanding of single words. 
  • Relating objects to the pictures.
  • Don’t worry about reading the book, point to what is happening in the picture.
  • Use language appropriate to the child’s needs (e.g. if the child only understands a few words, use single words). 
  • Use lots of repetition and pause after each word to give the child a chance to respond.
  • Make your child feel confident that they will be listened to and understood as much as possible. 
  • Do not correct the child’s language - if appropriate, model back the correct form but in a supportive way. 
  • Talk about objects (e.g. spoon, teddy) as well as actions (e.g. mixing, jumping, sitting).
  • Make sure the child is looking at what you are talking about (e.g. if a child is not looking, then comment on what they are looking at).
  • As the child begins to understand more words, ask him/her to find an object in the picture.

The Noala developmental language program provides opportunities to learn new words. The program empowers parents to take on a concept per session. A parent and child can explore themes such as colours, foods, transport, shapes, body parts to develop and support expressive and receptive language. Through coaching videos from a specialist speech and language professional, home strategies, interactive digital exercises and a weekly check in with your dedicated speech and language therapist, we can build up your child’s core vocabulary skills. 

Find out more about noala programs here.

Debbie Cohen
Speech and Language Therapist
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