There are two categories that speech and language disorders can be divided into: expressive language disorders and receptive language disorders.

You'll most likely hear these terms frequently, and this type of categorization helps speech therapists identify the best approach to care and develop appropriate speech goals for children and individuals.

In this post, we're going to cover all the details surrounding expressive and receptive language disorders, and what to do if you suspect your child has one.

Receptive Language Disorders

Let's start with a definition of receptive language disorders. In the broadest sense, receptive language is the comprehension of spoken language. As children grow and develop their communication skills, they must first be able to understand language in order to use it appropriately.

A receptive language disorder is an impairment of the ability to understand language. Children may struggle to grasp the meaning of what people are verbally communicating, or they may have trouble interpreting the context of written words when reading or writing. This can make it difficult to make sense of the world around them.

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How Does a Receptive Language Disorder Present?

For a child with a receptive language disorder, they may demonstrate some of the following:

  • Difficulty attending to simple conversation
  • Difficulty attending to shared tasks
  • Difficulty identifying named objects/photos
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty understanding questions spoken to them

The Importance of Receptive Language

Comprehension of language is critical to a child’s development. If the goal is to help a child clearly express their wants, needs, and desires through communication, they first have to understand how to engage in conversation and comprehend what is said. Receptive language is the basis of all of these skills.

This is why catching a receptive language disorder early is critical! The earlier intervention starts, the easier it often is to correct speech or language deficits.

How To Increase Receptive Language Skills

Here are some simple things you can do for your child if you suspect a receptive language delay:

For early communicators, engage your child in conversation. Even if your child isn’t verbally participating with you, that’s ok! The point is that you want to get your child attending to what you are saying. You can talk to your child and ask questions. Observe their eye contact and nonverbal communication to see if they are learning to engage in the conversation better with you.

You can also ask your child to identify objects or pictures as you play or read together. Provide simple verbal models such as, “I see the dog!” or “Here is your cup.” This will help increase your child’s receptive language vocabulary.

Following directions is another big area of receptive language. Provide simple routine directions initially and help your child follow these directions. For example, easy one-step directions might include “Point to the dog,” or “Give me your cup.” Over time you can increase the complexity of the directions provided.

Expressive Language Disorders

An expressive language disorder is impairment of verbal (and nonverbal expressive) communication.

A child with an expressive language disorder may be able to understand what is spoken to them, but simply have trouble expressing what they need to say. They may struggle learning and using new vocabulary words, understanding how to string a series of words together into a coherent sentence, telling a story, etc.

While all communication deficits can be difficult for children, expressive language disorder can be particularly frustrating. Oftentimes, children know exactly what they want to say, but it doesn't translate into a legible sentence once they begin talking.

Expressive language disorders are typically what parents and family members will notice first if a child is delayed in speech, simply because it is more obvious than a receptive language disorder. However, this doesn’t mean that these disorders only present individually (more on that below).

How Does an Expressive Language Disorder Present?

An expressive language disorder can present in a variety of ways. Here are a few examples:

  • Grunting instead of using words
  • Difficulty gesturing to express wants/needs
  • Lack of a variety of consonant-vowel combinations
  • Limited amount of words in expressive vocabulary
  • Difficulty forming phrases and sentences
  • Difficulty with various areas of grammar
  • Poor ability to answer questions

The Importance of Expressive Language

It doesn’t take a lot of explanation to understand the importance of having strong expressive language skills. Being able to clearly communicate thoughts and feelings is a need that all of us have! And if this is impaired, it can create many difficulties for a child.

Poor self-esteem and frustration can be affected when an expressive language disorder is present. Safety is also of concern. If a child cannot express details about an event, answer questions appropriately, or tell basic information like their name and phone number, this can be very concerning.

These are all reasons why we want to catch any language disorder as quickly as possible!

How to Increase Expressive Language Skills

If your child struggles with expressive language skills, there are strategies you can do to help.

For early communicators who aren’t yet talking, you can target simple imitation of early sounds, like /m/ /b/ /p/ /d/ and /t/. Imitation means that you pronounce these sounds for your child, and practice having them repeat them back to you. You can also work on imitation of simple environmental sounds, such as the sounds of trains and cars, animal sounds, or the sounds of a vacuum or water running.

After this stage, you can move on to things like imitation of single words, and eventually two and three-word phrases.

For children who are using simple phrases, working on complete sentences would come next. You can target sentence usage in various ways, such as appropriate sentence structure. Similarly, grammar-related goals like using correct verb tenses, using plural /s/ appropriately, and pronoun usage all fall under expressive language.

Can An Expressive and Receptive Language Disorder Exist Together?

It's important to note that while these types of language disorders can exist individually, they can frequently exist together. We would refer to this as a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder.

Sometimes, if a child’s receptive language is delayed, then that can affect their expressive language skills. There can be deficits in both areas.

However, it's also important to note that just because a child is delayed in expressive skills does not necessarily mean that they struggle with their comprehension abilities.

Clear as mud, right? The bottom line is this: No two children are the same! There are going to be different areas of strengths and weaknesses in every child. That’s why it is vital for a qualified professional like a speech therapist to help determine where a child is proficient, and where they need some extra help and instruction.

For more tips on how to help your child with speech and language development at home, head on over to Expressable Academy. This is our online bank of free speech lessons. Check it out today!