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CommunicatingExpressive Language

Expressive Language Disorder In Children

Mom and daughter laughing and talking.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 08 Aug 2022
Published 12 Jan 2022

What is Expressive Language in Childhood?

Expressive language is the communication that a child uses to express their thoughts and ideas. 

Receptive language is understanding what people say, while expressive language is speaking to other people. Expressive language skills involve language development, speech skills, and vocabulary.

Expressive language problems can be common in children. Some children have trouble saying what they want to say, getting their point across, and telling stories. A child’s ability level may be related to their expressive language. Self-esteem can also be related, with a child who feels nervous speaking less, and a child who cannot express themselves feeling frustrated or having lower confidence. 

Symptoms of Expressive Language Issues in Children

  • Not understanding: your child says, “I don’t know,” “I don’t remember,” or “I can’t say it!”
  • Not able to express thoughts: 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
  • Not understand sentence structure: your child demonstrates challenges with verb tense, grammar, or pronouns
  • Unable to describe objects: your child finds it difficult to come up with words or how to describe things
  • Forgets words: your child becomes frustrated because they can’t remember vocabulary words or think of the word they are trying to say
  • Doesn’t speak until 2 or 3 years of age: for your child, a good rule of thumb is that your child should have 18 words by 18 months. If your child is not speaking in two-word phrases by 24 months this could be showing a delay in expressive language.
  • Frustration sharing ideas: your child has lots of ideas that they just can’t get out and becomes frustrated by this 
  • Processing slowly: when your child has time pressure to answer a question or complete a written task, you notice their performance is affected.

Causes of Expressive Language Issues

For children who have expressive language challenges, it can be helpful to explore what type of challenge they are experiencing. These challenges are not necessarily the root cause of your child’s expressive language issues. But, 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: with your child, 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: your child understands what you are asking but cannot come up with an appropriate response. Your child may have difficulty identifying the correct vocabulary to create long and complex sentences. He may have trouble describing what he wants to say.
  • Remembering words: your child may struggle with remembering words. They may not use verb tenses, such as past, present, and future, appropriately. 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. Sometimes, children with expressive language problems misuse words because they don’t understand what they mean. Some children misuse pronouns when referring to others.
  • 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. Rather, 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 may 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: 

  1. Talk with your pediatrician: for a referral to see a speech-language pathologist. You may discuss family history with your doctor as you may find this was a challenge for one or both parents at a young age.
  2. Talk to your child’s teacher: 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 disabilities.
  3. Get your child’s language tested at school:  if your child is in school, talk to your child’s teacher 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 disabilities or a language disorder.

When to Seek Help For Expressive Language Challenges

When your child cannot express themself 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 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, home, or in the community.

Not socializing: your child may not choose to socialize much with other children their age because it may be difficult to communicate ideas. 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 disorder can affect all academic areas. This disorder 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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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