Receptive Language Development (Understanding)

August 25, 2019 No Comments

What is ‘Receptive Language’?

Receptive language refers to our ability to understand spoken language (e.g. vocabulary, grammatical structures). For the majority of people spoken language is their main form of communication and it can contain a number of structures such as questions and instructions. Language may be simple (e.g. “Do you want milk?”) or complex (e.g. “Don’t forget to fill the dishwasher, after you have done your homework, hoovered your room and found your hat”). Our understanding of the language used around us depends on our receptive language skills.

How do I know if my child is experiencing difficulties understanding spoken language?

If your child presents with any of the following, they may be experiencing receptive language difficulties:

  • He/she is unable to answer questions or follow verbal instructions without support. It may appear as if he/ she is ‘ignoring’ or ‘defying’ you
  • He/ she provides unrelated answers to questions asked
  • He/she frequently asks for clarifications, repetitions, help
  • He/she turns to an adult or peer for help answering a question or following an instruction
  • He/she is experiencing difficulties with their use of spoken language

Why might my child have difficulty understanding spoken language?

Some children struggle to understand spoken language due to:

  • Difficulties learning new vocabulary
  • Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)
  • Difficulties processing and holding information long enough to support understanding (retention)
  • Learning difficulties

What should my child be able to understand?

Birth – 12 Months:

Receptive Language Development - Baby
0-3 Months
  • Your baby will learn to turn to you & smile when they hear your voice
  • Your baby will often be calmed by the sound of your voice if they are crying
4-6 Months
  • Your baby will show excitement at the sound of approaching voices & they will be interested in toys and other objects that make sounds/ music
  • Your baby will start to respond to the word “no” & to changes in the tone of your voice
7-12 Months
  • Your baby will understand frequently used words such as “All gone” and “Bye-bye”
  • Your baby will stop & look when they hear their name used
  • Your baby will understand simple instructions/ requests when they are supported by gesture in context
  • Your baby will start to enjoy games such as ‘peek-a-boo’
  • Your baby will start to recognise the names of familiar objects

1 – 2 Years:

  • Your child will now understand single words in context e.g. cup, milk
  • Your child will be able to point to some body part when asked
  • Your child will often understand more words than they can say
  • Your child will enjoy listening to simple stories and nursery rhymes
  • Your child will recognise & point to pictures in a book when you name them
  • Your child will start to follow simple commands (e.g. “Shoes on”) & understand simple questions (e.g. “Where’s the car?”)

2 – 3 Years:

Receptive Language Development - Child
  • Your child will now be able to understand two stage commands (e.g. “Put the teddy in the box”) & they will develop an understanding of simples concepts (e.g. in, on, under, big, little)
  • Your child will understand a simple story when accompanied by pictures
  • Your child will understand questions that relate to their immediate environment & require concrete thinking e.g:
    • “What is that?”
    • “What can you see?”
    • “Find one like this”
    • “What is ___ doing?”
    • “Is is a ____?” (yes/ no response)

3 – 4 Years:

  • Your child will now be able to follow instructions containing multiple parts e.g. “Put the spoon in the big cup“, “Get your book, coat and bag
  • Your child will show an awareness of time in relation to the past, present and future e.g. yesterday, today and tomorrow
  • Your child will be able to group and describe objects by functions e.g.
    • “Which one is a fruit?”
    • “How are these different?”
    • “Find something that can cut?”
  • Your child will be able to tell you what is happening in a picture
  • Your child will be able to answer ‘where’ questions, giving a verbal response rather than just pointing

4 – 5 Years:

  • Your child will enjoy stories and can answer simple questions about them
  • Your child will understand instructions containing sequencing words e.g. first, after, last
  • Your child will start to understand adjectives e.g. soft, hard, smooth
  • Your child will now follow adult conversations which may include the past or future
  • Your child will use their own knowledge to make basic predictions, to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes or to make generalisations e.g:
    • “What will happen next?”
    • “How do you think he feels?”
    • “How do I make ……..?” (sequencing)
    • “How are these the same?”
    • What is a …..?” (definitions)

5 + Years:

  • Your child will develop higher level reasoning skills including:
    • Predicting changes e.g. “What will happen if…?”
    • Solutions e.g. “What should be do now?”
    • Causes e.g. “How did that happen?”
    • Justifying e.g. “Why can’t we eat ice-cream with a knife and fork?”
    • Explanations e.g. “How can we tell he is sad?”



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