What is Expressive and Receptive Language?

Expressive language is a term that describes how a person communicates a message intentionally to others. It encompasses verbal (talking) and nonverbal (gestures, body language, etc.) communication skills and how an individual uses language.

Expressive language skills include: facial expressions, gestures, labeling objects in the environment, describing actions and events, putting words together in sentences, using grammar correctly (for example, "I had a drink" instead of "Me drinked"), retelling a story and answering questions (who, what, when, where, why and how).

Receptive language is a term that describes a person’s ability to comprehend/understand language.

Receptive language skills include: comprehension, attention, listening, receptive vocabulary, following directions, and the ability to retain new information and use it in a variety of situations.

How can I tell if my child is having problems with his or her expressive language?

He or she may:

  • Have difficulty naming items and objects.
  • Does not combine words together as compared to his or her peers.
  • Uses sentences that sound immature for their age.
  • Uses 'jargon' (made up words) in speech.
  • Produces sentences that are 'jumbled' (i.e. words in wrong order, lots of stops and starts, and a lack of flow).
  • Is not understood by unfamiliar people.
  • Has difficulty finding the right words to use in conversation or when describing or explaining something.
  • Has trouble retelling a story.

PLEASE NOTE: These difficulties will vary from child to child. Receptive and Expressive Language Skills are dependent on the child’s age; as skills follow a developmental sequence.

Why is expressive language (using words and language) important?

Expressive language is important because it enables a child to be able to express their wants and needs, thoughts and ideas, express a point of view, develop their use of language in writing and engage in successful interactions with others.


Why is receptive language (understanding words and language) important?

Receptive language is important in order for a child to communicate successfully. Children who have understanding difficulties may find it challenging to follow instructions, respond appropriately to questions and requests at home or within the educational setting.  

A child uses expressive and receptive language skills in a variety of settings with a variety of communication partners. If his or her skills are not fully developed, frustration and/or behavioral issues may occur. As most activities require a good understanding and use of language, if skills are not fully acquired it may also make it difficult for a child to navigate and participate in the activities of daily life.