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Receptive and Expressive Language

All communication has two aspects: receptive language and expressive language. Receptive language is what we hear and understand. Expressive language is what we say to others. These two facets of language are very different but equally important. Good oral language development, both receptive and expressive, is a good predictor of later ability to read and write well.

Receptive language is the ability to listen and understand language. Expressive language is the ability to communicate with others using language. When children begin to talk, their receptive language skills are usually much more advanced than their expressive language skills. At about four years old, most children have a speaking vocabulary of about 2,300 words but a receptive language vocabulary of about 8,000 words. Receptive vocabulary plays a big part in listening comprehension, which is related to later literacy skills, and is necessary for understanding directions and for social contact. It’s easy to recognize the development of expressive language. What parent hasn’t waited impatiently to be rewarded by a baby’s first word? Receptive language development is not as easy to recognize. When the new baby responds to the sound of a pleasant voice, he is displaying the beginnings of receptive language. When a baby coos in response to a familiar voice, he is beginning to use expressive language. These are signs that he is beginning to understand that communication is important and useful.

toddlerWe need both receptive and expressive language abilities, and both begin to develop at birth. As children grow, their ability to understand and use language grows as well. Toddlers begin to respond to simple requests or questions—“Please get your shoes so we can go outside.” “Would you like more juice?” This is when simple word games like “Put Your Finger on Your Nose” begin to be enjoyable. Toddlers also begin to use one word sentences—“Doggie!” “Up!”—and may even use a few two-word sentences—“More cookie!” “Go out!” Preschoolers usually understand most of what is said to them. They can respond to complex requests—“Put on your shoes, get your coat, and wait by the door so that we can go outside.”—and because of their increased receptive language abilities, have good comprehension of stories and can answer simple questions about them. Their expressive language is also well developed. Preschoolers can form complex sentences—“We went to the zoo and saw the monkeys swing by their tails, and I had popcorn!” Because preschool children have better-developed language abilities, this is often the age when hearing or speech problems begin to be noticeable. If you think a child may have a hearing or speech problem, discuss it with the child’s parent. The child may need to see a doctor or be referred to a specialist.

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