What is Receptive Language? (An Overview)

In this blog we will answer the question ‘what is receptive language?’ and give an insight into the difference between expressive and receptive language.

There are two types of languages: Receptive language and Expressive language. 

Receptive Language is the ability to comprehend and grasp language, words and or actions of others. This includes visual information, sounds, concepts (for example, shapes, sizes, colors) and written information. 

Individuals who suffer from Receptive Language Disorder have difficulty in understanding what one’s actions mean, identifying objects and or following instructions. 

Expressive Language on the other hand is expressing emotions or needs via verbal or non verbal communication. An individual uses sentences or correct words while communicating, in order to showcase his thoughts/feelings. For example, a child telling his parents that he is hungry by saying ‘I want food because I am hungry’ or by simply patting his stomach as a sign of hunger. 

Someone who has an Expressive Language disorder may face difficulty in asking questions, using words or gestures, choosing the right vocabulary for specific situations etc. 

People who have a disorder of thought, Tangentiality also find it difficult to use receptive language or comprehend it.

How to diagnose Receptive Language Disorder? 

A child can be diagnosed with Receptive Language Disorder if he shows these behavioral signs: 

  • Inability to concentrate on specific information or directions 
  • Difficulty in following instructions (verbal or visual) 
  • Very low levels of concentration in school or while performing tasks
  • Repeating a question directed towards them 
  • Unable to read or write properly 
  • Lacking the knowledge or understanding that others of their age have 
  • Inability to differentiate between two things that are similar in one or more aspects (for example, unable to distinguish the sound of a doorbell from that of a car horn). 

A child who is less than 3 years old can be evaluated using early intervention. A speech-language therapist is the one who diagnoses one with language disabilities. 

Who suffers from Receptive Language Disorder? 

Intellectually challenged people have difficulties in using receptive, expressive or both types of languages. Around 3-5% of the children have this problem, in which they are unable to portray their emotions or feelings through the use of gestures or words. 

One might suffer from receptive language disorder due to a brain injury or a damaged central nervous system (CNS). This can be the result of an accident, childhood injury and or other mental disorders. 

A child who is diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Dyslexia or a learning disability are unable to interpret the meaning behind one’s actions or words. They themselves are unable to use receptive language daily, in order to communicate with others. 

Unlike the general population, someone with any of these mental disorders has a deficiency of the skill of communication. 

Similarly, people with Down’s Syndrome lack the use of receptive language (and expressive language or both). They don’t use verbal methods of communication, neither non verbal ways in severe cases. 

Other than this, someone whose parents, siblings or any close relative has Receptive Language disorder is also prone to develop it. Thus, individuals with a family history too are prone to develop it. 

Why is Receptive Language Important? 

Receptive Language is a very important mode of communication. It allows one to express himself through the use of words, gestures and or facial expressions. Communication itself is necessary and vital. 

It is how people talk to and or understand each other. Without communication the world will be a silent place. This is why the use of receptive language is important, in order for others to understand what one thinks or feels. 

Understanding of receptive language is required in a child’s everyday life. For example, in his school setting, one is required to follow instructions and answer the teacher’s questions. If a child is unable to do so, he lacks in his academia.

Similarly, people who don’t use receptive language or suffer from its disorder face issues when in a social setting. They don’t socialise with others, thus don’t have friends. One will stay in his own cocoon of solitary and loneliness. 

Therefore, Receptive language is seen as highly important in one’s daily life because of its significance as a mode of communication. 

According to the Muted Group Theory, language is a tool, which is in the hands of the majority (men) and is not as free as one thinks it to be. It worsens the experiences and thoughts of marginalized groups (women).

How is Receptive Language improved?  

With the help and aid of a therapist, children with receptive language disorders can improve their language skills and understanding. 

This includes: 

  • Giving the child minimum instructions. 
  • Use simplified or easy words when assigning them a task. 
  • Maintain eye contact with the child while giving him instructions. 
  • Break a long sentence into a short one. Give one instruction or task in one sentence. For example, instead of saying ‘Give me your copy, sit down on the chair next to me and write your name on the sheet’, break this into three tasks, after the first one is complete. 
  • Repeat one instruction at least twice. 
  • Ask the child to clarify his confusion. For example, if he wants the sentence to be repeated or elaborated. 
  • Use words like then/first/secondly in order for the child to understand the chronology of tasks. 
  • Physically show the child what he has to do (for example a teacher performing the task in front of him) and or using visual aids (such as images or videos). 
  • Emphasise the main word in a sentence while giving instructions. For example, when saying ‘Give me your pencil’, use a more assertive, emphasizing tone when saying ‘pencil’. 
  • Use a confident, clear pitch/tone when instructing a child. Try to reduce the background noises when speaking to him.

Activities that improve Receptive Language 

  • Ask the child to observe and name certain objects or places, for example when travelling in a car/train, visiting a public place or as a part of academics in school. 
  • Introduce new words to the child during a school activity. Explain new concepts through demonstration. 
  • Use the method of social learning (learning through imitation) for the child to perform his tasks while imitating others. 
  • Gradually increase the amount of words and length of sentence when giving instructions. 
  • Increase the number of tasks/instructions given to the child gradually. 
  • Play games like Simon says, Feely bag game or Hungry Puppets to incorporate knowledge and language skills through play. This way the child learns quickly. 

To improve your child’s communication skills, you can make him play Communication games.

Other than these methods, if a child is having difficulties using receptive language, the parents should consult a speech therapist. Occupational therapy with speech therapy is proved to be helpful for improving receptive language. 

These are some ways through which one assists a child with receptive language disorder and tries to improve his ability to communicate.

Above, we have answered the question ‘What is Receptive Language?’ and highlighted the issues that children with Receptive language disorder face. Additionally, the symptoms, causes, importance and treatment methods are also mentioned. 

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Frequently Asked Questions 

Q1) What is receptive language in child development? 

The skill a child develops first is to understand words and expressions of others. One tries to interpret the meaning behind these. 

Q2) What are receptive language difficulties? 

A child is unable to interpret words or gestures of others. He doesn’t follow instructions or cannot perform certain tasks directed towards him. This is why he lacks in academics, as well as in his social life.

Q3) Why is Receptive language important? 

It is a mode of communication. To communicate and converse with people, one needs to have a strong hold on both receptive and expressive language.

Q4) Can receptive language disorder be cured? 

Yes. Children with this disorder are treated using speech and occupational therapy. Other forms of treatment are allocated depending on the age and severity of one’s disorder. 

Q5) Does receptive language delay mean autism? 

Receptive language disorder is commonly associated with Down’s Syndrome and Autism, though for some children problem in using language is only a part of developmental issues. 


  • https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/understanding-language/receptive-language-understanding-words-and-language/
  • www.therapyworks.com
  • www.link.springer.com
  • https://gethackneytalking.co.uk/fact_sheet/receptive-language-skills/
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/mixed-receptive-expressive-language-disorder#causes
  • www.intermountainhealthcare.org