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Breaking Down Expressive & Receptive Language

Expressive and receptive language are frequently occurring terms when discussing a child’s language development. But what do they mean?

Expressive Language refers to sounds, words, and actions we use to communicate our message to others. This can be verbal (e.g., statements we make, questions we ask) or nonverbal (e.g., facial expressions, gestures). Expressive language skills include:

  • Intentionality - a child’s desire to start an interaction

  • Semantics - having the necessary vocabulary to get your message across including nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions

  • Syntax/Morphology – having the appropriate grammar and sentence structure

  • Pragmatics – being able to use language to communicate for a variety of reasons (to greet people, ask for things, answer questions, and comment on the environment)

Improving your child’s expressive language skills can help him get his wants and needs met, describe his day, have better conversations with peers, and share his thoughts and ideas with the world.

Receptive Language refers to our ability to understand language. Receptive language skills include:

  • Understanding the meaning of words

  • Understanding parts of grammar such as prepositions and pronouns

  • Following directions

  • Understanding the nuances of language such as inflection (e.g., rising inflection means someone is asking a question).

Improving your child’s receptive language skills can help him better understand what is going on in the classroom and at home. This will help him stay engaged and communicate more successfully.

SLPs, Teachers, and Other Professionals

Professionals who help to improve a child’s expressive and receptive language skills may work on:

  • Increasing his need/desire to communicate

  • Expanding his vocabulary

  • Helping him understand grammatical concepts such as pronouns and prepositions

  • Showing him how to use a variety of sentence structures to communicate his ideas more specifically

  • Facilitating conversational skills

Home Activities

There are many ways to incorporate strategies to build expressive and receptive language in your child’s routines. For example, when you are at the grocery store with your child, name each item as you put it in your cart. Talk about the category it belongs to (fruits, vegetables, cereal), what we use it for (e.g., we need soap to wash dishes), and describe the items (e.g., are apples sweet or bitter?). Ask him to help you put the items IN the bag or take them OUT of the bag. This helps improve your child’s vocabulary, helps with following directions and related grammatical concepts, and keeps him engaged in important daily activities.

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