Receptive Language Development

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

Receptive language is highly dependent on expressive language vice versa. 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 be able 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 the direction
  • Have adequate short term memory needed to listen to, comprehend, and retain the info long enough to carry out the direction.

There are different types of 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 a lot of trouble learning these directions words and have to be directly taught them. The reason for this is a whole other page. Stay tuned!

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 puts a pen next to the book....

  • Does this child adequate vocabulary in order to understand directions? 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 might know "under" then...great!
  • Hmm….maybe the child’s problem is 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. 

Let’s paint a picture of a child who has trouble understanding WH questions (the question words). Example 1:

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 our 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, deficit with understanding vocabulary, 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, than Preschool Talk or Toddler Talking 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 day one of birth (or even before), a child is listening to their native language and learning grammatical forms. For example, at birth, children start to learn nouns and then verbs. As they grow, they start to 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 any sort of language delay may have trouble with grammar (understanding and speaking).

My NOT RESEARCHED 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. 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
  • Not answer questions correctly
  • Not able to produce grammatically correct sentences
  • Not understand 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 about 90% (very scientific percentage) of our communication. If we don’t understand words, we can’t follow directions, understand stories, participate in conversations, or express our ideas effectively!

Usually, children will develop receptive vocabulary first before speaking.

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

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

Another example, think of a child who knows all the words to an adult song. It is funny because this toddler may be singing 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

These skills will develop over time. There is A LOT you can do to foster these skills. Head over to vocabulary learning and vocabulary games for some ideas. Don't forget to READ to your child everyday as well!

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