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The Ultimate Guide to Expressive Language in Early Childhood

Learn what expressive language is, why it’s essential for child development, and strategies to help children develop this important skill.

The Ultimate Guide to Expressive Language in Early Childhood

The Ultimate Guide to Expressive Language in Early Childhood

Language is a broad domain of child development. It encompasses a lot of different communication milestones, ranging from smiling and waving to speaking complete sentences. But even before children begin learning words, they are using expressive language to communicate their needs and feelings.

This article dives deeper into expressive language and child development. We explain the differences between receptive and expressive language, key expressive language milestones, and strategies and activity ideas that educators can use in the classroom to help children develop their expressive language skills.

What is expressive language? 

The two main purposes of language are communication and expression. Expressive language uses words, sentences, and gestures to express meanings and messages to others. This type of language allows us to make requests and decisions, ask and answer questions, and describe objects and events. 

When developing expressive language, there are some skills that need to be learned first. While these skills don’t need to be completely mastered before learning expressive language, there must be at least basic use of them. For example, expressive language may include the use of gestures, so fine motor skills are an important element of expressive language. Cognitive skills like attention and memory are also essential since expressive language involves reacting to the world around us. Pre-language skills, play skills, and receptive language skills are a few others that children will utilize for expressive language.

Learning how to wield expressive language is vital in early childhood development because it’s a time when children discover that using expressive language is how they get their wants and needs met, providing them with motivation to continue expanding their knowledge of language. In addition, teaching expressive language lays a foundation for introducing strategies and activities for building emotional self-regulation in children. Expressive language gives children the ability to express their emotions through language, giving them a healthy outlet for strong or intense feelings.

Young girl at speech therapy, sitting at desk touching her pointer finger to her chin.


Receptive vs expressive language

Expressive language is the ability to express meanings and messages to others using different forms of language. Receptive language, on the other hand, is the ability to comprehend and understand language. It involves being able to properly receive the messages and meanings of expressive language. Here are a few examples of the differences between the two:

  • Receptive language helps a child to understand the plot of a story, while expressive language allows them to tell their own story. 
  • Receptive language helps a child to comprehend verbal instructions, while expressive language allows them to speak their own directions to someone else.
  • Receptive language helps children understand what is being communicated to them, while expressive language is what they use to communicate with others. 

Expressive language milestones

As children grow, so does their capacity for language. Each child is different, but there are basic language development milestones that the typical child reaches at certain ages. As an educator, you may find it difficult to track each child’s individual progress through each milestone. A tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report makes it easier to keep up with every child’s development and easily share updates with their family in real-time. 

The following are some milestones for children ages six months to five years old:

6 months:
  • Makes sounds and squealing noises
  • Blows raspberries
  • Tries to repeat the sounds you make back at you

1 year:
  • Waves “hello” and “goodbye”
  • Claps their hands and moves their body to gesture
  • Calls parent/caregiver by a specific name such as “mama” or “dada”
  • Understands what “no” means (but may not always obey it)
  • Has different cries for different intentions

18 months:
  • Follows one-step directions
  • Tries to say three or more words besides the name they call their parent/caregiver
  • Points to show you something

2 years:
  • Points to things like objects in a book or body parts when asked
  • Uses more gestures, such as nodding “yes” or “no”
  • Says at least two words together, like “more juice”

3 years:
  • Can have conversations with at least two back-and-forth exchanges
  • Asks “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” questions
  • Says their first name when asked
  • Describes actions occurring in pictures or books
  • Generally speaks well enough for others to understand

4 years:
  • Says sentences with four words or more
  • Repeats words from a nursery rhyme, song, or story
  • Answers simple questions like “What does a doorbell do?” or “What kind of dog do you have?
  • Shares at least one event from their day

5 years:
  • Answers simple questions about a book or story after they’ve heard it
  • Uses or recognizes simple rhymes
  • Maintains a conversation with more than three back-and-forth exchanges
  • Shares stories they’ve heard or creates make-believe stories with at least two events

What is expressive language disorder?

It’s common for children to develop at their own pace, but there’s a difference between their unique journey and a potential developmental disorder. Expressive language disorder is a condition where a child struggles with most aspects of using expressive language. A child experiencing expressive language disorder may struggle with speaking to others, expressing their thoughts and feelings, remembering words, and saying complex sentences.

If you notice any of these signs in a child, it might be time to seek help from a speech therapist and do a speech-language evaluation. They will properly assess your child’s skills, create reasonable goals, and develop a unique program to help them reach those goals.

How to develop expressive language skills

Focusing a lesson or activity on expressive language is a great way for educators to help children develop these important skills. However, you can also approach the whole school day with developing expressive language in mind. You can try some of the following strategies for incorporating expressive language skills into your classroom:

  • Be inquisitive: Don’t ask children the same questions each day. Challenge them with more complex questions about how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking, such as “Why do you like this game more than all of the other games?” or “What are you finding difficult about this activity?” 
  • Give choices: Find any opportunity to ask individual children to make different choices. Allow them to choose things like marker colors for the dry-erase board or which book to read as a class.
  • Name items: Identify any items you use or hand out in class and ask the class to repeat each word back to you before moving on to a different item.
  • Create group activities: Once children are familiar with a concept, you can utilize group activities that are inherently collaborative and social, such as multi-player games and role playing. These activities put children in situations where they have to use expressive language to participate, which gives them tons of practice using expressive language skills. 

Because expressive language is a broad concept, there are lots of ways to incorporate it into the classroom. Most common school activities can help children improve their expressive language in some way. However, it’s great to do certain activities specifically focused on developing this skill to ensure that each child is getting the practice they need to fully develop the skill. Consider trying some of the following activities in your classroom:

Interactive storytime

During storytime as you read the book to the class, go through the pictures in the book and have the children identify different objects or events. For instance, if there is an image of a child’s bedroom, ask them to name everything they can in the room. Or if there is an image of a child taking a bath, ask them to explain what they are doing in the bathroom. 

Show and tell

Allow children to bring a favorite item from home to share with the class. Take turns having each child present their item to the class, describing what the object is and why it is their favorite. Encourage the other children to ask questions. 

Question games

There are tons of fun question games that encourage children to use expressive language. Games like “21 Questions” or “Guess Who” are great ones to try in your classroom. Or, you can even make up your own game that involves asking questions to try to get closer to a mystery answer.   

Daily reflections

After most of the day’s activities have been completed, have the class reflect on them. Ask each child to verbally explain their favorite part of the day, their least favorite part of the day, and what they learned.

Expressive language and development

Communication supports overall childhood development, and language is so impactful that it is its own developmental domain. Expressive language provides children with the tools to express themselves, aiding their growth and building an understanding of the world around them. It’s an important building block on children’s journey to learning language.

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