Language Disorders

What is Receptive/Expressive Language?

Receptive language refers to the ability to understand words and language, while expressive language refers to the use of words, sentences, gestures and writing to convey meaning and messages to others. There are two major types of language disorders: receptive language disorders and expressive language disorders. An expressive language disorder is one in which a child has difficulty conveying their meaning or messages to others, while a receptive language disorder is one in which a child has difficulty understanding and processing the messages/information they receive from others. It is also possible to have a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder in which a child has symptoms of both types of disorders.

Cause of Receptive/Expressive Language Disorders

A language disorder may be a primary disability or may exist in conjunction with other disorders and disabilities (e.g., ASD, ADHD, etc.). When a language disorders occurs in conjunction with other disorders and disabilities, the causes are typically defined in terms of these specific conditions.

For a primary disability of receptive/expressive language disorder (sometimes known as Specific Language Impairment [SLI] or Developmental Language Disorder [DLD]), the exact cause is unknown, but it is likely that there are several interacting genetic and environmental factors, rather than one single identifiable cause.

Symptoms of Receptive/Expressive Language Disorders

Children with a receptive language disorder have difficulty understanding language when it is spoken to them. These children may have:

  • A hard time understanding what other people have said
  • Difficulty following directions that are spoken to them
  • Difficulty organizing their thoughts
  • Difficulty answering questions

Children with an expressive language disorder have difficulty using language to express what they are thinking or need. These children may have:

  • A hard time putting words together into sentences, or their sentences may be simple and short with incorrect word order
  • Difficulty finding the right words when talking, and often use placeholder words such as “um”
  • A vocabulary that is below the level of other children the same age
  • A tendency to leave words out of sentences when talking
  • A tendency to use certain phrases over and over again, and repeat (echo) parts or all of questions
  • A tendency to misuse verb tenses (e.g. past, present, future)

Assessing Receptive/Expressive Language

Receptive and expressive language can be assessed formally through standardized assessments, as well as informally through observation. Standardized assessments provide information about the child’s understanding and/or use of aspects of one or more areas of language, including morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Assessments may also consider pre-verbal or non-verbal communication including gestures, facial expressions, body language, etc.

Treating Receptive/Expressive Language Disorders

Treatment will use a variety of activities to target specific language skills identified as areas of need during the evaluation, such as vocabulary, auditory comprehension, or formulation. Therapy tasks for young children may be based on games and other play activities; tasks for older children may be related to academic work or strategies. Therapy may be done individually or in small groups.