Learn It to Use It: Why Receptive Language is so Important

We mentioned in a previous blog post that play/cognitive skills are pre-requisites for learning language. In the same way, understanding words (receptive language) is a pre-requisite for using words.

Playtime is an excellent way to name common household items and toys or give simple directions.

Playtime is an excellent time to name common household objects and give simple directions to improve word understanding.

If a child does not understand that the word ‘cat’ refers to the furry creature with whiskers and a tail that meows, he can’t point to it and say "cat." If he doesn't understand what "eat" means, he can’t use that word to ask for food. It’s easy to focus on a child’s talking skills or lack of talking skills.

It’s so easy, in fact, that parents and educators often forget to look at a child’s understanding of language. This results in many receptive language delays being undiagnosed and not addressed in therapy or school. If your child is not talking as much as other children their age, you might want to know that most expressive language delays are accompanied by receptive language delays. Certainly children can have only expressive language delays, like when they have childhood apraxia of speech (CAS). However,  most times the child doesn’t understand the words they need to use to communicate.

"What do I need to look for?" you say. Well, here you go!

These are the steps infants to toddlers go through to learn what words mean:

- Baby looks when name is called

- Looks at family members, pets, and familiar items when named

- Understands what ‘no’ means

- Follows 1-step directions to give, point, look, or put down

- Identifies animal names/sounds

- Points to body parts and clothing items

- Toddler understands pronouns "you," "me," "my," and "I"

- Follows 2-step directions (i.e., "Put your blanket away and give me your cup")

- Identifies common objects in environment (table, tv, blanket, room)

- Understands simple verbs and adjectives (cold/hot, dirty/clean, sharp, more)

By the time children are 3 years old, they should have the above listed skills mastered. Most children say their first word around 1 year, which is after they have already learned familiar names and "no," and they are following simple directions. They have learned more words than they can say (their receptive vocabulary or words understood is called a "lexicon"). That makes sense, because they need to have heard words multiple times to learn them. Children continue to develop their receptive language alongside their expressive language skills as they progress in age.   

You can support your child’s understanding of language by doing the following:

- Point to items and name them (cup, water, milk, mommy, foot, pants)

- Give simple directions to follow (1-2 steps based on their age and ability)

- Build simple directions into routines (e.g. child has to get diapers every change, gets their sibling when it’s mealtime, or gets specific clothing items in the morning)

- Practice naming body parts during dressing times and bath time

- Read simple picture books and focus on the pictures more than the words (again, depends on your child’s age and ability)

- Use gestures with your words to show children what you are talking about

If your child continues to demonstrate limited understanding and/or use of language after utilizing these strategies, you should ask your child's pediatrician for a referral to a speech-language pathologist for an evaluation. They may need more specific strategies to support their ability to learn language.

Thanks for hanging out with the Speech Sisters! We’ll be back next week with some more info on pediatric development.

Marielle McKean, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist working with children and adults in the outpatient clinic and hospital settings in the Bend, Oregon area. Previously, she enjoyed all that Denver, Colorado had to offer an outdoor enthusiast while also working as a pediatric home health provider. She and Lauren are sisters and are originally from central Washington.

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