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CommunicatingExpressive Language

Expressive Language Disorder in Children

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Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 25 Oct 2022
Published 12 Jan 2022

What is Expressive Language in Childhood?

Expressive language in childhood is a child’s communication to express their thoughts and ideas. 

Expressive language skills involve language development, speech skills, and vocabulary. Simply put, “expressive language is saying what you want to say.” 

Receptive language is understanding what people say, while expressive language is speaking to others. 

Expressive language problems can be common in children. Some children have trouble sharing ideas, getting their points across, and telling stories. 

Kids may have academic challenges related to expressive language that require oral expressions, such as speeches and group work in the classroom. These experiences can impact self-esteem as kids who feel nervous may speak less and have fewer opportunities to practice their skills and gain confidence.

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Symptoms of Expressive Language Issues in Children

  • Comprehension issues: your child says, “I don’t know,” “I don’t remember,” or “I can’t say it!”
  • Expression problems: your child has a hard time explaining what they want to say
  • Incomplete thoughts: your child struggles to express their thoughts in complete sentences that make sense
  • Odd sentence structure: your child demonstrates challenges with verb tense, grammar, or pronouns
  • Unclear descriptions: your child finds it challenging to come up with words or describe objects or events
  • Word-finding issues: your child becomes frustrated because they can’t remember vocabulary words or think of the word they are trying to say. You may hear your child say, “I just can’t find my words”
  • Delayed language: your child started speaking a bit late. A good rule of thumb is that kids should have 18 words by 18 months. If your child is not speaking in two-word phrases by 24 months, expressive language concerns are evident
  • Frustration: your child has lots of ideas that they just can’t get out and becomes frustrated in trying so hard to communicate 
  • Writing issues: your child struggles with writing stories or essays due to difficulty thinking of the words or sentences to share their ideas
  • Slow processing: your child gets stuck on words or phrases and flustered when there is time pressure. It may take much longer to complete assignments

Causes of Expressive Language Issues

If your child seems to have expressive language issues, exploring what type of challenge they are experiencing can be helpful. These difficulties are not necessarily the root cause of your child’s expressive language issues. However, they can help you know where to look for interventions and support. 

Using a list like the one below can help you talk to your child’s teacher or speech therapist about the concerns you are seeing in your child’s language development.

  • Verbal expression: if verbal expression is an issue, your child may frequently say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” when trying to express their thoughts
  • Formulating sentences: if your child understands what you are asking but cannot come up with an appropriate response, sentence formation may be the issue. Your child may have difficulty identifying the correct vocabulary to create long and complex sentences. 
  • Word-finding: your child may struggle with word-finding if you hear something like, “I can think of it, but I don’t know the word” or “I can’t find my words.” They may not appropriately use verb tenses, such as past, present, and future. Due to problems with verb tenses, they may have difficulty writing stories and describing an event that happened.
  • Frustration over word choice: your child may not use the correct words and may get frustrated. This frustration could result in behavioral problems or low self-esteem. Children with expressive language problems sometimes misuse words because they don’t understand what they mean. 
  • Social challenges: your child may be very conscious of their language difficulties and may even be hesitant to make new friends or engage in social activities due to their communication skills.

The issues described above are not necessarily signs of an actual language disorder. Instead, they are clues about where your child is struggling. Knowing the specifics can help you target the right school-based or community-based interventions. 

“A child with these challenges may limit conversation with others or cry easily when constantly misunderstood. Some children may use a sibling to communicate their ideas. It might appear that a child doesn’t care about something, but in reality, they are just intimidated by the language required to participate.”

Expressive Language Disorder: The most common cause for expressive language issues is a language delay or a language disorder. Expressive Language Disorder is somewhat common in childhood and is amenable to treatment. It is characterized by a limited or decreased vocabulary for the person’s age, difficulty using pronouns appropriately, and trouble with verb forms, plurals, and the rules or content of language. 

Expressive Language Disorder Signs 

  • Limited vocabulary: they may know fewer vocabulary words to express their thoughts or feelings
  • Difficulties with plurals: they may misuse words, saying “childs” for children or “gooses” for geese
  • Trouble expressing thoughts clearly: they might say things in a jumbled-up order, making it sound confusing for the listener
  • Challenges getting ideas from head to paper: they may have difficulty expressing themselves in written language
  • Socially hesitant: they may appear to be shy or not speak much because it is difficult to get their ideas out clearly

What to Do About Expressive Language Issues or Expressive Language Disorder

If you are concerned about your child’s expressive language, take these steps. 

  • Talk with your pediatrician: for a referral to see a speech-language pathologist. You may discuss family history with your doctor because children can inherit some language issues
  • Talk to your child’s teacher or counselor: about meeting with the school speech-language pathologist, who can determine if an evaluation is necessary. The school special education team, including a learning specialist and psychologist, could also determine if further testing may be required to rule out other possible learning issues or disorders

When to Seek Help For Expressive Language Challenges

When your child cannot express oneself verbally or with written tasks: if your child struggles with coming up with the words they want to say, sharing ideas with others, and telling stories, it is probably time to get help.

The good news is that these challenges are readily amenable to treatment. Speech therapy can do wonders for a child struggling to express their thoughts at school, at home, or in the community.

Not socializing: if your child seems to be choosing not to socialize much with other children their age, it could be because of difficulties communicating. They may prefer to play alone or with family who understands them. If your child is experiencing these challenges at school, consult with the teacher early and often.

Academic challenges: Expressive language can affect all academic areas. These challenges can impact written language tasks, speaking in class, and social communication. Your child may struggle with various subjects that require public speaking or writing. 

If this is the case, you should inform your school team. Often interventions are available through the school’s Response to Intervention program. If your child continues to struggle, even with these interventions, the school may be able to provide services for your child’s expressive language or academic challenges.

Further Resources on Expressive Language

  • Speech-language pathologists: to provide speech therapy in expressive language and communication skills if special needs there are identified
  • Special education teacher: to help with reading and writing that may be impacted by expressive language or a speech disorder
  • Psychologist: to help with any emotional or social challenges associated with the expressive language problem
  • Pediatrician: to provide a referral for therapy or diagnose any related medical conditions
  • Geneticist: to evaluate if genetic issues are suspected

Similar Conditions to Expressive Language Disorder

  • Receptive language problems: it may be that deficits in language comprehension are impacting communication skills in general
  • Social skills challenges: it may be that social skills are impaired due to difficulty with language skills
  • Learning concerns: it may be that deficits in language skills impact schoolwork or grades in terms of completing homework tasks, projects, and tests
  • Tantrums: it may be that deficits in language skills lead to tantrums or acting out
  • Executive functioning: it may be that deficits in language skills are related to problems with planning out what to say and with controlling impulses
  • Auditory processing: it may be that language deficits occur due to problems with processing auditory information

Resources for Expressive Language Challenges In Children

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. http://www.asha.org/

Apel, Kenn & Masterson, Julie (2012). Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers.

Bernstein, Deena K. &   Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third-Sixth Editions.

Law, James; Garrett, Zoe & Nye, Chad. (2003). Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and language delay or disorder.

Lewis, Ph.D., Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). Brainstars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.

Speech Language Milestones: http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/chart.htm

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