Expressive Language Skills

I AM going to review all the areas of expressive language and attempt to paint a picture of how it all works. Expressive language is WAY MORE than simply the words you say!

I am NOT going to review all of the developmental milestones here, and yes they are important but I don't want you to get hung up on certain skills. I want you to understand how all the skills relate to each other. 

Okay, let's focus now!

Expressive language skills are made of up 3 main areas

  • Vocabulary (Content/Meaning)
  • Mechanics (Morphology/Phonology...yes phonology is LANGUAGE not speech)
  • Grammar (How we put words together)

All areas listed above of are equal importance and delays in any one area can cause a child many problems, so let’s review each one now.

Vocabulary

Oh, vocabulary, how important you are! Vocabulary is the content and meaning of what we say.

Now, when I say, vocabulary development, I am not just talking about the ability to label pictures. My 2 year old can label 100 pictures but this doesn’t mean he FULLY understands each word. Can he can relate them together, describe attributes, categorize, etc? Not yet (and this normal for his age).

This distinction is important though. Some think that if a child can label all of pictures or use a lot words, that they have good vocabulary but it goes deeper than that.

Strong vocabulary skills include the ability to:

  • Categorize words
  • Contrast and compare concepts
  • Describe attribute (shape, size color, feelings)
  • Identify location
  • Describe parts to a word/concepts

These skills will develop over time. Read here for more information for vocabulary learning for toddlers and vocabulary learning for school age students.

If your child isn't talking yet and is almost two, you can help boost their vocabulary WITHOUT tears. It is possible, I promise! There are a few subtle things you can add to the way you talk to your child that will make all the difference. Read more about it at Toddler Talk.


Word Mechanics

Word mechanics is a term that I just made up and this is a lesser known area of expressive language is equally as important.

The two components are:

  1. Morphology (words)
  2. Phonology (sounds)

Morphology refers to the structure of words and how a person adds different structures to word roots such as prefixes, suffixes affixes to change its meaning. All those fancy words really mean (examples)....

  • A child adds the ~ing to the word "run" to make the word "running"
  • A child adds an /s/ to the word "horse" to convey there are multiple "horses"
  • A child adds an -ed to a verb "bike" to convey that something in the past, "biked"
  • Etc….

Morphology is extremely important as it greatly alters the meaning of a message.

Phonology:

A lot of SLPs including myself have at one point thought of phonology as a speech/articulation skills but I assure you, it isn’t!

Phonology refers to the rules or organization of sounds in a language. There are certain sound combinations that just aren’t possible in a certain language. For example, Spanish doesn’t have the consonant /b/ at the end of words (final consonant). In English, we combine n with g (running) and this combination does not exist in other languages such as Spanish.

Phonological processes are patterns of errors that children typically use to simplify language output as they learn to talk. For example, a child may use a process called “cluster reduction” when saying a word such as “sport” (i.e., “port” for “sport.”) Articulating two consonants is hard for a young child, so he/she just deletes one. This is normal until 4 years of age. After 4, it may be a sign of a phonological disorder and this child may need help organizing the sounds of their language. 

If a child has trouble with word mechanics, the meaning expressive language is greatly affected (morphology) or it can lower their intelligibility (phonology).

Syntax

Syntax or grammar refers to how we put words together to make sentences and this is a crucial skill!

Let’s say a child knows vocabulary, has excellent phonological and morphological skills, but doesn't have a grasp on syntax...this child is in trouble! People will have a difficult time understanding him or her.

Syntax abilities include the following structures (morphology) at the SENTENCE level!

  • Correct pronoun use (he/she)
  • Personal & reflexive pronouns (him/her/himself/herself)
  • Correct verb form (past, present, present progressive, future)
  • Subject verb agreement
  • Negation
  • Conjunctions/complex sentences
  • The list goes on…..

For fellow therapists, when planning  expressive language goals, I had to take a step back and really analyze if a child had a morphology deficit or syntax deficit or both when writing goals and this has been a game changer. More on that later.

Narrative Skills

Last but CERTAINLY not the least in narrative language. Storytelling is a complex language task that slowly develops over time

Being able to tell a story is crucial for communication skills such as:

  • Socializing
  • Relaying past events
  • Sharing ideas/stories
  • Academic success
  • Reading comprehension
  • Expressing feeling(to name a few)

The main components of a narrative include:

  • Characters (who)
  • When (time)
  • Where (location)
  • Initiation Event (the problem)
  • Character Reaction (feelings)
  • Resolution (ending)

A child’s narrative language develops by listening to stories, telling stories, and sharing ideas. You can shape this important skill from a young age by following some ideas here.

Let’s do a quick example to illustrate what a delay in narrative language development may look like…

Let’s say we have a little boy who has excellent vocabulary, great word mechanics, and great sentence mechanics, but can’t tell a story. He either forgets to tell his listeners the important background information like the setting or the end of the story (resolution).

Let’s say a teacher asks, "what did you do this weekend? and our little boys says “the fish was huge.” Hmmm.....the teacher really has no idea what the boy did! 

He does have:

  • Good morphology - he used the past tense of ‘’is” correctly
  • Good phonology - all the sounds were organized well
  • Good syntax - grammatically correct sentence
  • Poor narrative skills - we don’t know where he saw a fish, who he was with, the problem, what happened at the end.

What's missing in his narrative?

  • Who: characters
  • Where: place
  • What happened: initiating event
  • Resolution

Depending on the age, he should have said...I went fishing with my parents. We went on a boat. I put my fishing pole in the water and  waited and waited to catch a fish. Finally, I caught a huge fish! I was excited.

For more ideas on how to develop narrative language as well as other expressive language skills, checkout Preschool Talk. It has 50 pages of games you can try today in your home without making or buying a thing :)


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Bridget is an ASHA certified, practicing speech language pathologist. She is passionate about providing parents with information on child speech and language development as well as provide functional, easy activities to do at home! Parents have the power to make a real difference.

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