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Communicating — Receptive Language

Receptive Language Impairment in Children

Young boy and dad having a conversation.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 01 Sep 2023

Published 13 Jan 2022

What is Receptive Language in Childhood?

Receptive language in childhood is the ability to understand what people are saying to you. 

A child’s typical language development starts with receptive language and moves to expressive language as the child begins to speak and communicate verbally. 

This process is why we often ask babies to point to something or say, “Where is your nose?” We are testing and encouraging receptive language. A child may use gestures to respond, indicating that they understand.

Receptive language is the ability to understand conceptual information, whether spoken or read. A child must understand the meaning of words and how words are used in context.

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Symptoms of Receptive Language Impairment 

  • Not understanding: Asking, “What?” all the time, often saying, “I don’t know,” giving you a curious look after hearing a story read aloud
  • Not getting it: Staying confused, even after you explain something clearly
  • Struggling to follow multi-step directions: Often completing only the first or last step of instructions
  • Selective hearing: Seeming to ignore or not hear instructions from adults. It may feel like the child is ‘in their world’
  • Responding to questions with an off-topic answer: seeming to say things that are “out of left field”
  • Not getting started: Refusing to get started on a task; explaining, “I don’t know what to do.”

Causes of Receptive Language Challenges

Here are several reasons why your child may be struggling with receptive language:

  • Not understanding language: Receptive language can be defined as the ability to understand language by utilizing attention, active listening, and processing information presented auditorily. A child who is struggling with attention, or processing information may misunderstand information coming in through their ears. 
  • Expressive-Receptive Language Discrepancy: If your child is better at talking than listening, they may be focusing more on their own voice than on others around them.  They may often interrupt others in an attempt to get their own point across.  
  • Monologues: If your child tells non-stop stories, without waiting for others to reply, they are using monologues. This type of storytelling or lecturing may cause the child to miss or ignore what others are saying. 
  • Developmental delay: a child with delayed development is likely behind language development. This delay could include a child’s speech or receptive language skills.
  • Learning a new language: a child who is new to the language, may have some receptive issues for a short period of time. Don’t confuse learning a second language for expressive language challenges. English language learners may appear to have a receptive language disorder. However, these challenges may be due to limited exposure to vocabulary and expressions, and this difficulty may not be an actual receptive language disorder.  
  • Receptive language problems will appear in all languages a child speaks: With repetition, time, and cueing, comprehension should improve. If a receptive language disorder is present, it will appear in both languages. In a multilingual child, receptive language issues will show up in all languages the child speaks. 

What to Do About Receptive Language Issues

A child with language processing challenges will do better with a task when given cues, time to respond, and choices of how to do something.

Think to yourself, ‘how could I teach this without using many words?’

  • Do teach first: For example, you may teach your child their morning routine, first demonstrate how to brush your teeth, get dressed, and comb your hair. 
  • Do draw out expectations: Put the routine on a poster in the bathroom and simply point to each step.
  • Do write out the steps: For homework, write the steps down into smaller steps. With visual cues and repetition during projects and complex assignments, they will typically demonstrate more success and less frustration.
  • Do allow for extra time: Allow your child extra time to get started on tasks but stay close by to ensure it gets done. 
  • Don’t talk too much: As a child is learning to comprehend, it helps for adults to not say a lot. This allows the child to process each bit of information. When giving instructions, give one at a time. 
  • Don’t talk too fast: As a child is learning to comprehend language, it helps if adults talk slowly and clearly. 
  • Do give choices: Allow the child choice in what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, or what tasks they can do independently vs. those tasks that require your help.

When to Seek Help For Receptive Language Issues

Get help if you notice your child struggling with understanding what they are reading and hearing: A child may struggle in many subjects due to receptive language issues. Reading comprehension and listening comprehension are required in all subject areas in the academic setting for a student to be successful. Receptive language difficulties or problems with the processing of information can also, in turn, affect grammar for written language skills.

If you notice your child struggling with writing and comprehension: A child may not understand grammar rules and may have difficulty writing due to a poor understanding of language skills. For these reasons, if you suspect your child has a receptive language disorder, seek help from your child’s school. A speech therapist can assess whether or not a language disorder is interfering with your child’s education.

Impacting day-to-day communication but not academic success: A child may be struggling with social communication or basic language skills in the classroom, lunchroom, or at recess. it may be that a private speech/language pathologist could provide a diagnosis, treatment, or both.

If you have a family history of a language delay: your child may be more inclined toward having these issues too. In this case, do not wait for interventions or services. Go ahead and inform a therapist of any related challenges within the family.

Professional Resources for Receptive Language 

  • Speech-language pathologist: to provide speech therapy for receptive language problems and communication skills; to assess for any auditory processing challenges
  • Licensed psychologist: to diagnose associated disabilities, such as autism or ADHD, and provide social skills treatment or other therapies. A psychologist can assess a child’s ability level and compare it to different language skills.
  • School psychologist: to help with academic or social challenges associated with language problems. Assess social skills if a child has challenges in any aspect of language development

Similar Conditions to Receptive Language Issues

  • Communication skill problems: children with receptive language problems may struggle to communicate with family, friends, or classmates
  • Academic problems: children with receptive language issues may also have difficulty with reading, writing, or following directions in class
  • Verbal comprehension issues: children with poor receptive language may have trouble with the cognitive ability to understand language
  • Social skill issues: children with receptive language challenges may have trouble with social skills
  • Emotional problems: children with poor language skills may also have emotional disabilities or mood symptoms
  • English language learner: children who are learning English may have difficulties with receptive language and comprehension
  • Pragmatic language challenges: children who have difficulties with receptive language and understanding peers may also have poor social language skills (pragmatics)

Book Resources on Receptive Language  

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.

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

Pfiffikus (2016). Following directions activity book | toddler–grade K – ages 1-6.