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An Early Childhood Educator’s Guide to Receptive Language

Help children develop the skills to understand language.

An Early Childhood Educator’s Guide to Receptive Language

An Early Childhood Educator’s Guide to Receptive Language

The first five years of a child’s life are crucial for all developmental areas. One essential developmental skill is receptive language, which is the foundation for communication and literacy.  

A child’s ability to express their feelings, ask questions, and communicate their needs with words and body language is essential to their academic and social success.

Read on to learn more about receptive language skills, why they’re important, and how to develop them in children.

What is receptive language?

Receptive language refers to a child’s ability to understand language and words in nonverbal, verbal, and written formats. In early childhood, receptive language skills help children play, learn, and engage in everyday activities by responding to requests and following instructions. For example, when you say, “Sit on the chair” or “Go outside and play,” a child relies on receptive language skills to listen and follow instructions.

Why is receptive language important?

Receptive language is one of the first skills a child learns, and support from early childhood educators helps them develop it more so they can communicate successfully. Children who’ve developed good receptive language skills can better understand the meaning of words, form coherent sentences, follow tasks appropriately, understand verbal and written information, and communicate successfully with others. 

Receptive language skills also support children’s social-emotional development and emotional self-regulation. Emotional self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to recognize, manage, and appropriately display their emotions. Children need both receptive and expressive language skills to help them understand what is being said to them and to use words to express how they are feeling. These language skills help children recognize new emotions and learn to communicate big feelings.

Receptive vs expressive language 

Expressive language is a child’s ability to express themselves using words or gestures. The difference between receptive and expressive language boils down to “input” and “output.” While receptive language relates to the “input” of language (listening), expressive language relates to the “output” of language (talking). Let’s examine other differences:

  • Receptive language helps a child follow simple verbal instructions, like “Close the door” or Take off your shoes,” while expressive language helps a child give simple step-by-step instructions.
  • Receptive language helps a child answer comprehension questions (who, what, why, and where) while expressive language helps a child choose the correct grammar forms, like using the past tense to describe an event that happened yesterday.
  • Receptive language helps children understand the meanings of words, while expressive language helps children use vocabulary words to do things like get attention, make requests, and describe objects.
  • Receptive language skills help children predict events in a story, while expressive language allows children to put words in the correct order and use proper sentence structure.

Receptive language examples

A few examples of receptive language skills in children include:

  • Understanding words and sentences
  • Understanding language concepts, like prepositions (on/in) and size (big/small)
  • Listening to and interpreting a story or conversation
  • Following simple and multi-step instructions, like “Pick up the ball and bring it to me” 
  • Answering questions accurately
  • Using correct pronouns and tenses

Children with strong receptive language skills are more likely to succeed in the classroom by having the proper skills to engage in activities, communicate with others around them, and follow instructions.  

Speech and language milestones

During the early years, a child’s language skills grow with exposure, experience, and intentional instruction. Here are typical key speech and language development milestones for children ages two to five:

Speech and language milestones at 2 years old

  • Uses universal words, like names of foods, animals, and toys
  • Asks two-word questions
  • Points to things in a book
  • Repeats words they hear 
  • Uses more gestures than pointing or waving, like nodding yes or blowing a kiss
  • Knows names of familiar people
  • Points to body parts 
  • Follows one-step instructions

Speech and language milestones at 3 years old

  • Follows two or three-step instructions
  • Says first name, when asked
  • Can name multiple familiar objects
  • Asks who, where, what, or why questions, like “Where is mommy?
  • Uses past tense and plurals
  • Understands prepositions, like on, in, and under
  • Uses two to three-word sentences in conversation
  • Talks well enough for non-family members to understand
  • Says action happening in a book or picture, like eating, sleeping, running

Speech and language milestones at 4 years old

  • Uses pronouns correctly, like he and she
  • Says sentences with four or more words
  • Talks about events in the day, like “I painted a picture
  • Sings a song from memory, like If you’re happy and you know it or Head, shoulders, knees, and toes
  • Answers simple questions, like “What do you use a brush for?” or “What do you do with a fork?
  • Says first and last name when asked
  • Tells simple stories

Speech and language milestones at 5 years old

  • Speaks clearly
  • Keeps up a conversation with more than three back-and-forth exchanges
  • Uses full sentences
  • Answers simple questions after listening to a story, like “What’s the little girl’s name?
  • Repeats a story or makes up one
  • Says name and address when asked
  • Uses future tense, for example, “Daddy, will you play with me later?
  • Recognizes rhyming words, such as van/can, sat/cat

While these are general speech and language milestones, remember that children learn language and reach milestones at different paces.

How to develop receptive language skills

Teachers play an essential role in fostering receptive language skills. Here are some day-to-day strategies and activities you can use in the classroom:

Chunk verbal instructions

Breaking down instructions into simple sentences helps a child understand the instruction better. For example, instead of saying, “Put on your jacket, get your bag, and wait at the door,” say, “Put on your jacket.” Once the child has done that, follow with “Get your bag,” and finally, “Wait at the door.” Giving one instruction at a time allows the child to execute it successfully, and builds their confidence.

Read books

Ask each child to point to an object or action in a picture book; for example, say, “Point to a tree” or “Point to the person standing.” Next, read a story, re-state important parts, and then ask simple questions to determine comprehension, like “What is Peter’s favorite color?” Encourage the children to predict what might happen next. Reading also helps with developing expressive language. 

Encourage play

Encourage play regularly and observe the children’s activities. Encourage them to talk about their activity by asking open-ended questions like “How did you do that?” or “Tell me about what you’re doing.” Playing games is a great way to develop listening skills as they involve following instructions. For example, research shows that the game Simon Says improves listening skills

Use non-verbal cues

Match your instructions with non-verbal cues to strengthen your message and provide visual context. For example, when you say, “Sit down,” motion them to a chair. If you say, “Put the book on the shelf,” pick up a book and put it on the shelf as you’re speaking.

Other strategies include:

  • Obtain and maintain eye contact before giving an instruction
  • Use simple and clear language
  • Use visual aids like pictures and signs  
  • Repeat instructions when necessary, and have them repeat the instructions back to you
  • Encourage children to ask for clarification if they forget or don’t understand the instructions
  • Emphasize the word you want the child to learn in different scenarios

While incorporating these strategies and activities, recording each child’s progress is a great way to keep track of their milestones—something you can do with an app like brightwheel’s daily activity report.      

The bottom line

Receptive language is fundamental in child development as it’s the foundation for social and academic success. When a child understands instruction and can communicate with peers, they’re more likely to succeed in life. Promote receptive language skills by incorporating plenty of activities that encourage listening and comprehension.

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