The difference between ‘expressive’ and ‘receptive’ language

You may have heard the terms ‘expressive language’ and ‘receptive language’ used by professionals, but most people don’t know exactly what they mean, or how they relate to their child’s language development. Here, we’ll attempt to define the difference.

You can think of this, somewhat, as the difference between language “input” and “output.”

Receptive language refers to the understanding of “input.” It includes understanding words and gestures, but goes past simple vocabulary. When we talk about receptive language, we also mean being able to understand concepts like “in” or “on,” and being able to determine that a question is, in fact, a question.

Expressive language is more about “output” – or how a child expresses their wants and needs. It doesn’t mean the same thing as simple speech production. Parents will sometimes worry about language development as in, “My child isn’t speaking enough,” or “My child doesn’t know the right words for things.”

It is possible, within the context of expressive and receptive language, to not know the word for something (i.e. “chair”) but be able to point to it when prompted. Gestural cues and facial expressions are important in early learners, even if the actual words aren’t there.

Overall, expressive and receptive language are both elements of the development of literacy skills – in terms of how a child understands their environment and expresses themselves. As they get older, these skills develop into the baseline for reading and writing.

There’s a good deal of academic research on expressive vs. receptive language, and we won’t link to all of it here, but this study is particularly interesting. 41 pairs of mothers and two year-old children were studied around the idea of joint picture-book reading: when the mother started, how many times a week she read to the child, etc.

Ultimately, age of onset home reading was the most important predictor of oral language skills, and picture-book reading was found to be more linked with receptive language development (as opposed to expressive), although it had correlated positive contributions with each type.

The twin lessons: don’t worry if your child isn’t necessarily using full words to express an idea. There are a lot of cognitive and fine motor skills that a child needs to develop before learning how to speak. And, of course, read and speak to your child from an early age and with as much frequency as you can.

As always, if you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, you should discuss it with your child’s healthcare provider.


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