Let’s Talk About: Receptive Language

receptive language

Receptive language is the ability to understand and make sense of communication that he hears and sees. Receptive language includes but is not limited to the following skills:

  • Following one and two step directions

  • Answering “wh” questions (i.e., what, where, who…)

  • Vocabulary

  • Basic concepts (shapes, colors, numbers, letters)

  • Spatial concepts (i.e., in, on, under, etc.)

Red Flags for Receptive Language

1. Not Listening

Children who have difficulty with receptive language may appear to not listen. The child doesn’t understand what is said, so they don’t respond when someone tries to communicate with them. What they hear may make little sense and have limited value for the child. Often a first step is to rule out a hearing loss.

2. Not Following Directions

The child does not understand he should do. He may only understand part of what he is suppose to do. He may ignore direction as discussed above or complete the direction incorrectly. Often directions are given quickly with many details that may be hard to understand.

3. Limited Interest in Books

The child may be interested in the pictures, but not be able to sit for the story since they may not comprehend what they hear. They may understand little details, but they miss the overall message of the story.

4. Difficulty with Questions

The child may answer the question incorrectly or ignore the question because the didn’t understand what was asked. They may have difficulty answering questions about a story read to them. Asking about their day may be difficult. The child may repeat the question instead of answering it.

5. Do Better with Pictures or Gestures

This child may be able to answer a question if there is a picture. They may be able to follow routine directions when directions are given with gestures.

How to Help When Your Child Doesn’t Understand?

1. Shorten your sentences

Saying less will help your child by giving him less to try to figure out. Break sentences down and reduce the complexity. When possible reword your sentence using words your child understands.

2. Use pictures and gestures

This gives your child clue to the what your message means. Speech therapists call this a visual cue or prompt. Adding gestures (i.e. pointing to what you are talking about) helps your child focus and provides clues. If your child is very young, you could consider incorporating some sign language into your routines.

3. Slow Down Your Speech and Wait

Gives the child time to think about what is said. Pausing your speech helps to break up the sentences so the child can process it easier. Wait to give the child time to process your message.  Wait longer than feels comfortable!

4. Repeat Your Message

Like going slow, this gives the child more time to process your words. It may be frustrating to repeat yourself, but it is helpful. Repeat again and wait.

5. Help when Necessary

Hand-over-hand help with direction when possible teaches the child what to do.

  • Parent: “This is how we pick up the toys.”

Improve Receptive Language During Daily Routines

1. Reading Picture Books

Reading is always a great activity for so many goals. Picture books are a fantastic option for working on receptive language skills. You can label the pictures you see on a page to build vocabulary. You can have the child point to pictures to build skills for following directions. You can incorporate simple “wh” questions (i.e. what, where, and who) to work on pointing to the answers.

2. Pretend Play

Pretend play is such an important skill for little ones to develop. It is so rich in language. Using a baby doll, you can work on following direction (i.e. feed the baby, put the baby on the blanket, etc). You can start with familiar directions and work towards unfamiliar ones like “stand the baby on his head.” You also have the opportunity to build on vocabulary like clothes, body parts, foods, and actions. You can work on “wh” questions as you play by asking questions like “what did she eat?” Or “who gave her milk?” This would also work with a pretend kitchen.

3. Bath Time

Much like pretend play, bath time offers many opportunities to work on vocabulary and following directions. Body parts, clothes, actions, and toys are a few categories of vocabulary that can be talked about. You can give simple directions like wash your toes or give me the duck. You can give directions for things he is about to do or is doing to teach that concept.

  • Parent: “Dry off.” “Put your arm in the shirt.”

4. Family Meals

Meals are a wonderful chance for families to reconnect after a long day. It’s also a great time to naturally slip in improving receptive language skills. It’s a natural place to ask “wh” questions like “what did you do today?” Older family members or siblings can be great models for those little one who are struggling. Following directions happens often throughout the meal.

  • Parent: “Give me your plate.” “Throw away the napkin.” “Drink your milk.”

5. Going to Bed

This is a good time to cuddle with your child. It’s another chance to read a book. Prepare them for the next day and talk about new vocabulary words. Give familiar directions to prepare for the next day (i.e. put clothes i the laundry, pick a shirt, or get your pillow”). Ask them about their day if you didn’t get a chance at dinner. Sing a song or finger play that involves following directions (i.e., “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”)

I’m hoping Derby will be useful when working on receptive language goals. I talked about this a little bit in this post here. I discussed following directions and vocabulary development. I can also see his use for “wh” questions.

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