Receptive Language Development

Receptive language refers to how one understands language. However, it is a bit more complicated than that!

Receptive language highly depends on expressive language, so, if you haven’t read the expressive language page, please do so!

When discussing receptive language, there are 4 main areas to consider:

  • Following Directions
  • Understanding questions
  • Understanding grammar
  • Receptive vocabulary

Following Directions

The ability to follow directions is just how it sounds. Can a child understand and carry out a direction such as “open the box?”

To follow a direction, a child must know:

  • Direction words such as open, first, second, after, before
  • Vocabulary: A child must know what a box is in order to find it and open it!
  • Have adequate attention needed to listen to a direction
  • Have adequate short-term memory needed to listen to, comprehend, and retain information long enough to carry out a direction.

There are different directions that require a special set of vocabulary understanding:

  • Spatial directions - Directions that have a spatial modifier (prepositions such as under, on, over, above.) “Put the cup under the table”
  • Temporal Directions - Directions that have a time constraint and usually contain the words before or after. “After you put on your shoes, open the door.”
  • Sequential /Multi-step Directions - Directions that require a child to carry out steps in a certain order and usually contain the words first, second, next, last, etc…” First, cut out the shapes. Then, glue them on the paper. Last, give the paper to me.”
  • Quantitative Directions - These directions specify the amount of something. “Give me a few grapes.” Or “Pick one animal.”

Many children who have trouble learning language will have trouble learning these directions words and have to be taught them. 

If a child is having trouble following directions, the tricky part is figuring out WHY! The why here is crucial since it will greatly affect a child’s individualized treatment plan. 

Let's review a case study:

Let’s say a child is challenged with the direction, “Put a pen under the book” and  the child puts a pen next to the book.

  • Does this child have adequate vocabulary in order to understand the direction? Does the child know what a pen is? He did grab the pen so yes! Great!
  • Does the child know the word under? This is hard. Let’s say the therapist gave an informal direction to look under the table to pick up a pencil and he did it. He MAY know the word under or the child may have scanned the table, not seen the pencil, and then looked under the table. So, we don’t know the answer to this question yet.  
  • Maybe the child’s problem is a lack of attention or short-term memory abilities, not a language issue.

It’s a process but an important one!

Understanding Questions

Understanding questions refers to a child’s ability to answer “WH” questions such as who, where, when, what, what doing, why, and how. This is a CRUCIAL skill necessary to demonstrate academic knowledge, participate in conversations with teachers/peers, socialize, make friends, etc….

This ability again depends on many foundational language skills such as understanding grammar, vocabulary, and attention. 

Example 1: a child who has trouble understanding WH questions (the question words)

A teacher reads a story to a class and then asks a student “who was the story about?” and the child answers “a park.”  This child may have 2 different things going on:

  1. This child has trouble paying attention or has difficulty remember things so he just answered with anything he remembered from the story
  2. This child doesn’t understand that a question with the word “who” is asking about a person or animal

Example 2:

A teacher reads a story to her class and then asks a student “who was the story about?” and the child answers “a boy,” but the correct answer is “a girl.”  

This child may have 2 different things going on:

  1. The child doesn’t have the vocabulary to answer the question
  2. The child has trouble comprehending paragraph length information whether it is a deficit with narrative structure, a deficit with understanding vocabulary, or a deficit with understanding grammar.

There are simple examples of a very important skill. I hope it paints a better picture of the complicated process of answering questions! 

If you want more practice at this level with specific, EASY ideas

might be exactly what you are looking for!

Understanding Grammar

The ability to understand grammatical structures (word and sentence level) is exactly what is sounds like

From birth (or even before), a child is listening to his/her native language and learning grammatical forms. For example, at birth, children learn nouns and verbs. As they grow, they learn morphology (changes in word endings) such as present (eat), past-tense (ate), future (will eat), and present progressive (is eating) verb forms and things progress from there! A child must also understand sentence level grammar (syntax) noun-verb agreement (a child runs NOT a child run), use of pronouns (I can do it by myself), etc…

Many children with a language delay may have trouble with grammar (understanding and speaking).

My clinical-based opinion on the matter is if children have trouble learning language, so much of their energy is spent on processing incoming messages (content) that they don’t have enough energy left to absorb word and sentence structure rules. It is simply too much! 

What does a delay in grammar comprehension look like?

If a child has trouble understanding grammar, they may have:

  • Trouble following directions
  • Answer questions incorrectly
  • Unable to produce grammatically correct sentences
  • Misunderstand stories

How to help:

Understanding Vocabulary

The ability to understand vocabulary again is just what it sounds like! This is a simple but yet very powerful receptive language skill. Content makes up a large portion of our communication. If we don’t understand words, we can’t follow directions, understand stories, participate in conversations, or express our ideas effectively!

Can a child have good expressive vocabulary but poor receptive vocabulary?

Yes! A child may repeat words or say “rote phrases” without understanding what he/she is saying. 

Another example, think of children who know all the words to an adult song. It is funny because these toddlers sing very inappropriate things but they have NO IDEA what they are saying!

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

How to Help:

There is A LOT you can do to foster these skills. Check out:

More To Learn



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. Follow Bridget at Facebook and Pinterest for more fun!

Author of  child language development eBook series



› Receptive Language