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Receptive Language= Language INPUT

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

When we think about language we often think about a person’s ability to use words and sentences (i.e. expressive language), but the ability to understand language (i.e. receptive language) is equally as important. Receptive language refers to the “input” - it is the ability to understand the words, sentences, and stories used by others.

Children with receptive language difficulties may respond inappropriately to questions or struggle to follow directions. It may appear they are “not listening” or are distracted, when in fact they are have difficulty understanding the message.

In order to help a child to understand language, we have to know what is expected of them at what ages. There is a hierarchy to receptive language skills- some are easier than others and this is important information so that we know how to support a child in this area.

Below are Receptive Language Milestones:

• By 2 years-old, children should understand simple questions (e.g. Where is daddy?) and follow one-step directions (e.g. Go get the ball)

• By 3 year-olds, children should understand a variety of wh-questions (i.e. who, what, where, what…doing) and follow two-step directions (e.g. Go get your hat and bring it to me)

• By 4 years-old, children should understand more complex questions (e.g. when, why, how) and follow three-step directions (e.g. Go get your ball, put it in the toy box, and come here)

What is a WH Question?

Wh- questions are questions people ask to get information or communicate their wants and needs and can are questions about anything! Below are some examples of the different types of Wh- questions:

  • What is for asking about something (what is that?)

  • When is for asking about a time (when do you eat dinner?)

  • Where is for asking about a place (where is your toy?)

  • Why is for asking about a reason (why are you crying?)

  • Who is for asking about a person (who makes your lunch?)

  • How is for asking about the condition, manner, or quality of something (how do you wash your hands?)

These question types vary in level of complexity and even if your child may understand the question "where is your toy?", they may demonstrate difficulty with understanding less concrete 'where' questions, such as, "where does a cow live?".

What You Can Do To Help a Child With Understanding?

• Emphasize Key Words - make the important words stand out to help the child understand your message. “Where did you see the dog?”, “Please pick up your toys and put them in the bin”

• Break Instructions into Smaller Steps - instead of saying, “It’s time to go to school so put your dishes in the sink, get your lunch bag, and put on your shoes” break the information in chunks. First say, “It’s time to go to school so put your dishes in the sink”. Once that step in complete, then asked the child to “get your lunch bags and put on your shoes”. A younger child may need these instructions broken into even smaller steps.

• Ask for Confirmation - encourage the child to repeat back the instruction so you can confirm that it was heard and understood. “Please go upstairs and put on your pyjamas. What do you need to do?”

• Use visuals - you can help the child to more quickly and easily understand your message by pointing, using gesture, or showing objects. “Please get your cup (while pointing to the cup) and bring it to me (while tapping on the table).

• Model the answers to wh- questions first- "Daddy is cooking dinner", then ask "Who is cooking dinner?" or give the child choices after you ask the question (e.g,. "Who is cooking dinner- mommy, daddy or nana?")

There are many other ways you can support a child’s receptive language skills, so if you have questions or concerns, please reach out to Empower Communication Services.

Reference: Developmental Norms for Speech and Language, American Speech-Language and Hearing Association. (

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