Receptive & Expressive Language Disorders

Receptive language disorder means the child has difficulties with understanding what is said to them. The symptoms vary between children but, generally, problems with language comprehension usually begin before the age of four years.

Children need to understand spoken language before they can use language effectively. In most cases, the child with a receptive language problem also has an expressive language disorder, which means they have trouble using spoken language.

It is estimated that between three and five per cent of children have a receptive or expressive language disorder, or a mixture of both. Another name for receptive language disorder is language comprehension deficit. Treatment options include speech–language therapy.

Symptoms of receptive language disorder

There is no standard set of symptoms that indicates receptive language disorder, since it varies from one child to the next. However, symptoms may include:

  • not seeming to listen when they are spoken to
  • appearing to lack interest when storybooks are read to them
  • inability to understand complicated sentences
  • inability to follow verbal instructions
  • parroting words or phrases of things that are said to them (echolalia)
  • lExpressive language disorder means a child has difficulty conveying or expressing information in speech, writing, sign language or gesture. For preschool children, the impairment is not evident in the written form, since they have not started formal education.

    Some children are late in reaching typical language milestones in the first three years, but eventually catch up to their peers. These children are commonly referred to as ‘late-talkers’. Children who continue to have difficulty with verbal expression may be diagnosed with expressive language disorder or another language impairment.

    Symptoms of expressive language disorder

    Children with expressive language disorder have difficulties with the grammatical aspects of spoken language such as using the correct verb tense (they might say ‘I go’ when they mean ‘I went’) and combining words to form accurate phrases and sentences. They typically produce much shorter phrases and sentences than other children of the same age, and their vocabulary (the number of words they know and use) is smaller and more basic.

    Children with expressive language disorder are usually below the average level for their age in:

    • Putting words and sentences together to express thoughts
    • Recalling the names of words
    • Using language appropriately in a variety of settings with different people (for example, at home, in school, with parents and teachers).

    Specific examples of expressive language impairment include a seven-year-old child being unable to join sentences with words like ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘if’, and a three-year-old child who speaks in two-word sentences.

    Symptoms of expressive language disorder differ from one child to the next and depend on the child’s age and the degree of the impairment. Common symptoms include:

    • Making grammatical errors, leaving off words (such as helper verbs) and using poor or incomplete sentence structure (for example, ‘He going work’ instead of ‘He’s going to work’ and ‘I talk’ instead of ‘I can talk’)
    • Using noticeably fewer words and sentences than children of a similar age
    • Using shorter, simpler sentence construction than children of a similar age
    • Having a limited and more basic vocabulary than children of a similar age
    • Frequently having trouble finding the right word
    • Using non-specific vocabulary such as ‘this’ or ‘thing’
    • Using the wrong words in sentences or confusing meaning in sentences
    • Relying on standard phrases and limited content in speech
    • Sounding hesitant when attempting to converse
    • Repeating (or ‘echoing’) a speaker’s words
    • Being unable to come to the point or talking in circles
    • Having problems with retelling a story or relaying information in an organised or cohesive way
    • Being unable to start or hold a conversation and not observing general rules of communicating with others
    • Having difficulty with oral and written work, and school assignments.