Does Your Child Understand You? The Importance of Receptive Language


“How many words should my child be saying?”  “What sounds should she be making?” “When should he put 2 words together?”  When parents ask us about speech and language skills, we primarily get questions about expressive language (what a child says) and articulation (how a child pronounces a word).  We rarely hear parents asking about a vital component of speech and language development: receptive language (what a child understands). So what is receptive language, why is it so important and how can you encourage your child’s development of receptive language skills?

What is receptive language?

According to the American Speech and Hearing Association, Language is the comprehension and use of a spoken, written or other communication symbol system (sign language). (ASHA, 1993). There are two main components of language: expressive language and receptive language. Expressive language refers to what a child says says and receptive language refers to what a child hears and understands.  Receptive language is the foundation of language as a whole. We don’t typically use words and concepts we don’t understand, so understanding is essential to use speech and language appropriately. Children typically understand much more than they say so receptive language development is usually ahead of expressive language.  Babies begin to develop receptive language skills almost immediately. They will hear their mother’s voice and turn towards it and as they grow into an older baby they will be able to respond to “No” and follow simple commands such as “come here” or “hand me the book”. It is important that we stimulate receptive language skills as much or even more than expressive language because children need a strong foundation of receptive language to express themselves effectively.  Children with a receptive language delay may have difficulty following directions, answering questions and identifying vocabulary.



What are some early receptive language skills?

If you are concerned about your child's ability to understand what you say, check out these milestones for birth through four below to see if they are on the right track.    If you still have concerns about your child's understanding we recommend setting up an evaluation with a licensed speech pathologist in your area.  You can also begin using some of the receptive language tips outlined at the end of this post in your daily routines.  

Birth- 3 Months

  • Attend to sounds in their environment
  • Babies will respond to sounds differently.  They may startle at a loud sound or be comforted by a familiar voice


4-6 months

  • Begins to respond to the word “No”
  • Recognizes familiar voices
  • Moves eyes to the direction of sound


7-12 months

  • Recognizes names of familiar items
  • Follows simple commands such as “come here”
  • Recognizes verbal cues for routines such as “bye bye” or “peek-a-boo”


1-2 years

  • Identifies familiar items by pointing to them in books
  • Identifies basic body parts and clothing items (shoes, socks) by pointing
  • Responds to simple questions (Where’s Daddy?)
  • Responds to yes/no questions by shaking head or nodding


2-3 years

  • Follows 2 step commands
  • Understands simple spatial relationships (in, out, on)
  • Understands opposite concepts (hot/cold  wet/dry)


3-4 years

  • Follows 3 step commands
  • Identifies colors
  • Understands more complex spatial relationships and opposite concepts



How can you encourage receptive language development in your daily routines?

  • Read  

Reading to your child is a great way to promote receptive language skills.  This allows you to introduce them to a variety of vocabulary words and also give them the opportunity to point to familiar items.  Ask them to point to several items on each page. “Can you find the dog?” or “Where is the cow?” This activity keeps them engaged in the book while strengthening their vocabulary and ability to follow commands. Make sure to label all the pictures you see to consistently expose them to new vocabulary.   If you have an older toddler or preschooler, ask them questions throughout the story to be sure they are understanding what they hear. Older preschoolers should be able to answer simple “Who” “What” and “Where” questions. If they are unable to answer the questions independently, go back to the pictures in the story and see if the picture cues can help them answer.


  • Simplify your language

We highly recommend using rich language when talking with your child, but very young children or children with a receptive language delay may benefit from using more simplified language in order to understand what they hear.  You could say, “Get your shoes” instead of “Timmy, go into the kitchen and get your shoes by the door.” Children with receptive language delays may not understand the commands you give if you are too detailed.


  • Play Hide and Seek

Hide a few favorite things around your house and tell your child you are going to give them clues to find them.  This targets following directions and can also target spatial relationships such as “on”, “under” and “behind”. You could give clues such as “Look under the bed” or “ Open the door and look inside the box.”  This activity can help you gauge how many step commands your child can follow and help you to identify which spatial relationships or positional words that they understand.

hide and seek.jpg


  • Identify body parts and clothing items

Each time you get your child dressed or give them a bath you have the opportunity to expose them to body part and clothing vocabulary.   When they are young, simply label the body parts and clothing items as you go. “I’m washing your feet.” or “This is your shirt.” After they have been exposed to the vocabulary, you can ask them to get involved.  For example, you can ask them to point to various body parts. “Where are your eyes?” or “Hand me your foot to wash.” You can also put out various clothing items and ask them to hand the correct one to you. “Hand me the pants.” or “Where is your shirt?”


  • Play Simon Says

This game encourages following commands and can also target spatial relationships, body parts and colors.  Give your child commands and see if they can follow them. “Simon says, pat your head.” “Simon Says, get a green crayon.”  “Simon says look under the couch.” This activity is so fun for little ones, while also encouraging various receptive language skills.


I hope you have found this explanation of receptive language helpful and that you can use some of the strategies with your own little ones.  If you have any concerns about your child’s receptive language development, we always recommend getting an evaluation from a speech pathologist.  If you would like more receptive language tips, please visit the resources and downloads tab of our website for a free receptive language tips handout.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1993). Definitions of communication disorders and variations[Relevant Paper]. Available from www.asha.org/policy.