Expressive Language vs Receptive Language in Children (Everything You Need to Know from a Certified Speech-Language Pathologist)

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You may have heard your doctor or child’s teacher use the term “receptive language” or maybe you heard your pediatrician use the term “expressive communication”. It’s possible that you read about it in a book or are just generally curious about expressive language vs receptive language. The two terms are very intertwined and both are needed for communication.

What is receptive language?

Receptive language is being able to understand what someone else is trying to tell you. Receptive language is not limited to understanding spoken words, but also sign language, written words, and even body language (although that really gets into social communication).

Receptive language is someone saying “cup” and your child knowing that you are talking about the thing that you put their milk in.

Receptive language is also being able to follow a set of simple or complex directions.

What is expressive language?

Expressive language is communication output. It is what you say or tell someone using spoken words, sign language, body language, or written words.

Most commonly, we think of expressive language as spoken words. When a doctor or educator is asking about your child’s expressive language, they are probably thinking of how many words your child can say on their own. However, if you have taught your child baby sign or ASL, that absolutely counts as expressive language! (Check out my article here for how to get started with baby sign.)

Expressive language means telling others your own thoughts, ideas, and opinions. While a lot of learning language comes from repeating someone else, true expressive language is when your child can say or sign words without you doing them first. Again, this will take time, but it’s an important distinction to make. If your child seems to be behind in expressive language, check out my post here with my best tips for late talkers.

Is receptive or expressive language more important?

Asking if receptive language or expressive language is more important is extremely difficult to answer. It is kind of like asking if it’s more important to mix the bread dough together or bake the bread dough. Because of course, your bread won’t be good if you don’t stir all of the ingredients together, but it will be gross if you don’t bake it. Both are very important and necessary steps in making bread.

Similarly, in order to communicate, you need to have both receptive and expressive language. Just like you have to mix the dough first before you bake it, you need receptive language first.

You cannot expressively communicate if you do not first understand the meaning of the words you are saying. If you have ever tried to learn another language, you will know exactly what I mean. You don’t just start saying “I like bread” in Spanish if you don’t know the words for I, like, and bread.

In this way, if you feel like your child needs to work on both receptive and expressive language, then work on receptive language first.

Examples: Receptive vs Expressive Communication

Receptive Language

Receptive language is understanding what someone else is communicating.

At the most basic level, this is when a baby hears someone saying their name and looks at the person. Babies also demonstrate receptive language when they stop an activity (even if it’s only briefly) when they are told “no”.

As babies become toddlers, they start to point at pictures of objects when they are named. Children begin to follow simple directions and eventually 2 or 3-step directions. This shows an understanding of what is being asked of them.

As children grow, receptive language includes understanding stories, reading, and following a conversation.

Receptive language is used throughout your entire life! Without good receptive language, you will not be able to learn new things, maintain relationships, or enjoy reading books.

Receptive language is the basis of communication because without it you have no understanding of what is being said.

Non-Examples of Receptive Language

Sometimes knowing what receptive language IS NOT is just as helpful as knowing what it is. Nonverbal cues such as head nodding or good eye contact are not part of receptive language.

Speaking or making a sign in sign language is not receptive language.

Expressive Language

Expressive language is the ability to express yourself, to say your own thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

Examples of expressive language start at a young age when a child uses their first words or signs. (Check out my article here about starting baby sign language.) This might mean the sign for “more” or the spoken word “dada”.

Eventually, your child will put two words together, like “more milk” or “hi mommy”.

Short phrases will turn into full sentences that get more complex as children get older.

Spoken, written, and signed communication are all part of expressive language.

Non-Examples of Expressive Language

Babbling, although it is part of language development is not expressive language. Although they are using sounds, they are not communicating in a meaningful way.

Understanding what someone else is saying when they are talking is not expressive language, that’s receptive language.

Receptive Language and Expressive Language Milestones

0-3 Months:

  • startles or reacts to loud sounds
  • makes cooing sounds (“ooh” and “ahh”)
  • may recognize familiar voices
  • cries to get needs met

4-6 Months:

  • moves eyes in the direction of a loud sound
  • recognizes changes of tone in your voice
  • may begin to understand “no”
  • starts using more sounds like “pa”, “ba”, “me”

7-12 Months:

  • turns to person when they call baby’s name
  • says first words like “mama”, “dog”, “hi”
  • tries to imitate your speech
  • starts to understand simple commands

18 Months:

  • follows simple directions like, “give mommy the cup.”
  • uses several new words
  • can point to at least one body part when named
  • shakes head and says “no”
  • points to something they want

2 Years:

  • points to several objects/pictures when named
  • uses phrases with 2 or more words
  • asks questions like, “what’s that?”
  • listens to short stories and songs

3 Years:

  • can name a majority of familiar things
  • understands the idea of “his”, “hers”, and “mine”
  • follows 2-3 step directions
  • holds a back and forth conversation using full sentences
  • uses pronouns (I, me, we, you) and plurals (cats, shoes, chairs)

4 Years:

  • tells stories to other people
  • knows first and last name
  • says or sings entire poems or songs (like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”)
  • names letters and numbers
  • hears and understands most of what is said at home and school

5 Years:

  • uses full sentences to tell a story
  • getting better at grammatical rules, like using future tense (“We will go to my friend’s party.”)
  • says name and address

What is a receptive or expressive language delay or disorder?

As you’ve been reading this article, you have probably noticed that although receptive and expressive language is distinctly different, they are also very connected. If your child is not talking (expressive language), it might be because they are not understanding what is being said (receptive language).

In order to have a conversation, you need to be able to comprehend what the other person is saying (receptive language), and respond appropriately (expressive language).

Since these two skills are SO intertwined, the disorder and disabilities associated with them often have components of both receptive and expressive language difficulty. Below is a basic list of disabilities commonly associated with receptive and/or expressive language difficulties.

  • Autism
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • intellectual disability
  • specific language impairment

For more information on receptive language vs expressive language, check out this article from the American Association for Speech-Language Pathologists.

4 thoughts on “Expressive Language vs Receptive Language in Children (Everything You Need to Know from a Certified Speech-Language Pathologist)”

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