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How to Develop Expressive and Receptive Language in Young Children

Language is an important part of children’s cognitive development. Every day of their lives, children will communicate with others.

Language is divided into two main sections: expressive and receptive language. Here is a brief overview of what these are, as well as how you can develop these essential language skills in your children.

What is Receptive Language?

Developing receptive language skills involves the ability to understand language and spoken words.

A child learns basic language from their parents, and through their regular daily routines. They learn to interpret what they hear as a way to understand what is going on in life.

They begin to learn sounds and words.

Mom talking to baby

Receptive language also involves the process of listening to someone or something. A child picks up information from the environment around them and from what is being said to understand their current situation [source].

Why is Receptive Language Important?

Without receptive language, it is hard to communicate effectively. Those children who have problems with receptive language may find it challenging to follow a set of instructions or may not respond appropriately to questions, whether at home or school.

Problems with receptive language could eventually lead to other problems in the future, including behavioural issues. A child may struggle with many activities at school and not thrive academically.

What is Expressive Language?

On the other hand, expressive language skills refer to spoken and signed language. Children may express themselves with words and gestures.

It involves forming sentences, building vocabulary and using grammar correctly, in order to communicate with others and describe events and actions.

Girl whispering to mother

Children should be able to communicate and explain what they want as well as write it correctly. As the word states, it is the art of expressing oneself. Without this, a child can barely communicate [source].

Why is Expressive Language Important?

Expressive language is essential because, without it, your child cannot let you know what they are thinking, feeling, or needing.

Children need to be able to communicate every need, want, and idea they have. To be able to successfully and effectively interact is vital, for, without it, your child will have a tough time in school and life.

How do Children Develop Language?

Children develop language in a variety of ways, and it develops over time.

To develop expressive language skills, a child needs to first develop receptive language skills. They also need to have the ability to concentrate without being distracted.

First, children develop pre-language skills. They learn to gesture, make facial expressions, imitate people, and make eye contact.

Then, they start to play and develop self-motivation. That motivation includes wanting to engage in conversation with family and friends.

From 8-13 months, babies start to point at objects, shake their heads, wave hello and goodbye, and try to speak in their own ‘words’. From then on until around 18 months, they slowly develop their vocabulary and understand short phrases and words.

At the age of two, they start to use sentences, and these begin to make sense as their grammar improves. Then, up until age five, their language improves drastically.

They understand what is said to them and their social skills improve as well. After age five, your child’s communication with others will be intelligible [source].

Ways to Improve Receptive and Expressive Language

You can do certain things in your home to help your children with their receptive and expressive vocabulary development. Here are a few receptive and expressive language activities and ideas:

  • To improve their receptive language, make sure to make eye contact with your children when speaking to them.
  • When giving instructions, don’t give them all at once – break them up into chunks.
  • You can also use time sequences with your children and have them repeat instructions to make sure they have understood what is being said.
  • Read lots of books to your children, so they can learn the time sequences. Use examples and show your kids what you mean. Reading can also help their expressive language as well.
Dad reading to children
  • For both receptive and expressive language, allow your children to play frequently.
  • To help your children develop expressive language, when you speak to them, speak directly to their face, so they can watch you mouthing the words.
  • Whenever you can, try to expand your children’s vocabulary with simple phrases.
  • When a child states something that isn’t grammatically correct, model the correct sentence for them.
  • Encourage your kids to verbalize their needs instead of relying on their hand gestures.
  • Talk about your day-to-day activities with them.
  • Music is also an excellent way for them to learn words and phrases. Here are some great songs to learn.
  • Here are some interactive language activities ideas.

What Causes a Language Delay?

Oftentimes, you cannot narrow in on the cause of a child’s language delay. There could be many factors or it could be a symptom of a more significant developmental disorder.

That is why it is crucial to see a professional if you notice significant delays in your child’s language.

What are the Symptoms of a Language Delay?

Many children, when dealing with a language delay, often have either social or academic difficulties. These kinds of struggles often lead to behavioural problems [source].

If your child has a problem with receptive language, they could have some or all of these symptoms:

  • Trouble understanding what people say to them
  • Difficulty following spoken directions
  • A hard time organizing their thoughts, either spoken or written

With expressive language delays, your child could exhibit these symptoms:

  • Difficulty piecing together a sentence
  • Using “um” frequently
  • A lower vocabulary in comparison to children of similar age
  • Incorrect use of tenses

What to Do if Your Child Has a Language Delay

If you suspect your child has a delay with either their receptive or expressive language development, see a speech therapist.

They will be able to do an assessment to determine where the problem lies to assist your child better.

How Can Therapy Help?

Therapy can help your child to develop their language ability further. Therapists know how to help when it comes to language delays. They can strengthen your child’s language so they can communicate effectively with you and their peers. [source]

Speech therapist working with young boy

If you do not treat their language delays, they could have difficulty developing friendships or completing school. In severe cases, it could be a form of a greater developmental disorder.

Take notice of your child’s receptive and expressive language and take the time to develop their language skills on a daily basis.

Every child develops at their own pace; however, if you see multiple developmental issues, seek a consultation with a speech therapist.

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Anabilie Villanueva

Wednesday 22nd of March 2023

I just found your page today.its very helpful for me.thank you for sharing

Tanja Mcilroy

Tuesday 28th of March 2023

Thanks Anabilie!


Saturday 27th of March 2021

I've only just discovered your page today. Thank you for your well thought out and clear explanations. The information is brilliant. I am a preschool teacher myself (South african too) and I will be directing my parents to click on your download!

Tanja Mcilroy

Wednesday 31st of March 2021

Hi Lucinda, thanks for your kind words. Always great to meet a fellow South African. I hope you'll find lots of useful info. Take care, Tanja

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