Expressive vs. Receptive Language

Speech-Language Pathologists often throw around the terms “expressive language” and “receptive language” as though they are in everyone’s vocabulary. To clear up any confusion, here are definitions for these terms in simple language.

What is Receptive Language:

Receptive language is the understanding of language “input.” This includes the understanding of both words and gestures. girls talkingReceptive language goes beyond just vocabulary skills, but also the ability to interpret a question as a question, the understanding of concepts like “on,” or accurately interpreting complex grammatical forms (i.e. understanding that the phrase “The boy was kicked by the girl” means that a girl did the kicking). A child typically develops receptive language skills first, you can think of children as sponges who absorb the rules and use of language before they begin to express themselves using each of these language skills. (To learn more about receptive language delays, click here.)

What is Expressive Language:

Expressive language, is most simply the “output” of language, how one expresses his or her wants and needs. This includes not only words, but also the grammar rules that dictate how words are combined into phrases, sentences and paragraphs as well as the use of gestures and facial expressions. It is important to make the distinction here between expressive language and speech production. Speech production relates to the formulation of individual speech sounds using one’s lips, teeth, and tongue. This is separate from one’s ability to formulate thoughts that are expressed using the appropriate word or combination of words. If you have concerns about your child’s language development, consider both how they respond to directions you provide, as well as the words and word combinations they use. Give credit to the gestural cues and facial expressions that your child uses and reacts to as this is an early-developing and important skill. If your concerns persist, seek out the advice of a Speech-Language Pathologist who can evaluate your child and determine if their development is on track, or whether therapy is warranted. And regardless of your child’s skill set, keep talking and interacting with your child- however they are able. Language models are key in fostering the development of communication skills.

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Gretchen Olson

Gretchen Olson is a Speech-Language Pathologist who has worked with children in a great variety of settings including schools, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Being one of five children herself, Gretchen has been surrounded by and worked with children for as long as she can remember. Prior to earning her degree in Speech Language Pathology from Rush University, she worked for the May Institute at a school designed specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders where she was trained to use and teach the Picture Exchange Communication System. At this school, Gretchen was also very involved in the selection and training of alternative augmentative communication systems for students' use. Gretchen has participated in research related to patient advocacy and increasing awareness of the language disorder, aphasia. She most recently presented an educational DVD that she was involved in creating which is aimed at educating emergency personnel about aphasia at the ASHA convention in Philadelphia in November, 2010.

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5 replies
  1. Noelle says:

    My nineteen month old understands very well. He’ll help pick his toys up when asked, point to different animals and body parts when asked, throws things away when asked, and so on. His expressive is where I worry because he still doesn’t say much. He will say up, da( for daddy), mom, down,ball, and yes but sometime they are a bit disorted and as he jibbers a lot he doesn’t say clear words. I have brought in a speech therapist to have him tested but he is shy around some adults for a little and doesn’t get across to them as he would his family or kids that he plays with. They tested him a little higher then what was needed for any help. I’m still concerned by his lack of speech and pronunciation. Any suggestions?

  2. Ryan says:

    Hi there, I’m just wondering if the SMILE program would be available in Idaho? (I’m asking on behalf of our Headstart program). Thanks!


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  1. […] Children ages 3-5 and who are identified with speech/language delays may receive services in the S.M.I.L.E. program (Sensory Motor Integrated with Language Enrichment). This therapy is delivered through small groups and theme-related activities; the activities target articulation as well as receptive and expressive language skills. […]

  2. […] for AutismShut inside a mind with autism…the need for technology explainedBlogs by parentsExpressive vs. Receptive Language .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 […]

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