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Receptive Vs. Expressive Language

What is Receptive Language?

Receptive language is language that is received, comprehended, or understood. This includes interpreting and understanding what is heard, signed, gestured, or read.

For your child, this looks like understanding directions and questions, identifying objects and colors, and following the understood rules of conversation (turn-taking, question and answer, etc.)

What is Expressive Language?

Expressive language is language that is expressed. This includes speaking, writing, signing, gesturing, and using augmented alternative communication (AAC).

This is easier to observe than receptive language, since we can see, hear, or read language that is expressed.

Why do we distinguish between the two?

Even though it is easier to observe and measure the development of expressive language, the role of receptive language in development and overall communication should not be overlooked!

Receptive language develops faster and before than expressive language. Why? Because a child needs to understand what is being communicated to them before they are able to communicate back! You cannot have expressive language without receptive language.

Receptive and Expressive Language Assessment

Children can be delayed in one or both areas.

When speech-language pathologists assess children, they assess receptive and expressive language separately and together and will often write goals for each area. It is important to understand if a child is understanding a skills before you expect them to use the skill. For example, if they are not able to identify animals, that should be practiced before expecting them to label the animals.

What does this mean for parents?

It is extremely important to constantly be communicating with your child through eye contact, pointing, speech, and big facial expressions that mimic the emotion you are trying to convey!

This is how they learn the meaning and use of language and develop their receptive language skills.

Practice Receptive Language Skills:

  1. Practice identifying objects, actions, and descriptors by having children point to objects or pictures that you name. You can also practice this while cleaning up- have your child hand you specific items, colors, shapes, etc. that you name.

  2. Practice following directions. Give a simple, familiar direction (i.e. “Come here”, “Sit down”, “Give me____”, “Throw this away”, etc.) If they do not complete it, give them a verbal cue (repeat the direction). Then give a visual cue (pointing, gesturing). Then give a physical cue (guide them gently and help them complete the direction). This will help them learn the meaning of the direction [comprehension] AND learn than they are expected to complete directions that they are given [compliance]. The complexity of directions can be increased as needed by adding descriptors ("Get the spotted shirt"), adding prepositions ("Put the book under the table"), adding steps ("Take the plate to the kitchen and put it in the sink"), and making step unrelated ("Take the plate to the kitchen and then bring me the vacuum").

  3. Practice answering WH questions (who, what, when, where, why). Who, what, and when questions will be easier for younger children. This can be practiced while looking at pictures in a book, while playing with toys, or after an event.

Practice Expressive Language Skills:

  1. Practice labeling objects, animals, household items, descriptors, etc. Hold them up to your child but also do this when asking what they want to eat, play with, put on, etc. Rather than asking "Do you want an apple?" ask "Do you want an apple or banana?" requiring them to label rather than just say "yes."

  2. Encourage your child to use phrases for multiple different purposes, like requesting ("I want ___") and refusing ("I am all done with ____"). Wait to give your child something until they indicate they want it. Wait to remove something until they indicate appropriately that they do not want it.

  3. Encourage turn-taking in interactions like play, singing songs, and then conversation. This is an important skill to practice from a young age. Take turns while sharing snacks, stacking blocks, talking about your day, etc.

Visit our page Encouraging Speech and Language Development for more information.


If you are concerned that your child might have a delay or disorder concerning receptive and expressive language, check out our milestone booklet to compare developmental communication benchmarks by age!

Connect with us on Instagram or through our website for more information or services!

Here are some helpful resources about receptive/expressive language:

Napa Center


Gracie Lee is a student at the University of Alabama studying Communicative Disorders with a minor in Business. She plans to become a Speech-Language Pathologist and specialize in aural rehabilitation. In her spare time, Gracie likes to read, bake, and go to concerts with her friends.

Skyrocket Pediatric Therapy Foundation (Skyrocket) does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Skyrocket provides general information about developmental disabilities and developmental therapies as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Skyrocket has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Skyrocket.


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