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The Difference Between Receptive and Expressive Language

May 16th, 2023 | by Amanda Wallace

Amanda Wallace

May 16th, 2023

Receptive Language vs. Expressive Language: Talking and Listening


The difference between receptive and expressive language comes down to talking and listening. Receptive language involves listening and expressive language involves talking. These two words are probably the shortest and most used definitions to explain expressive and receptive language. And while both are key components to language, there’s more to it than just that.  

Language is the system someone uses to communicate with another person. This includes how words are created and put together, the meaning of those words, and how to apply language in different social situations.

As people, we use language to understand the world around us and to convey our thoughts and feelings. This is the basis of receptive and expressive language.  

Receptive Language 

Although listening is an important component of receptive language, it involves much more than just that. What is receptive language? Receptive language is the understanding of information provided in a variety of ways such as sounds and words; movement and gestures; and signs and symbols. Children often acquire elements of receptive language faster than expressive language. Because of this, our receptive language vocabulary is generally larger than that of our expressive language.

Receptive language is the understanding of information provided in a variety of ways such as sounds and words; movement and gestures; and signs and symbols.

What Are Receptive Language Skills?

During speech therapy for children, receptive language skills and goals might include:  

  • 1. Following simple to multistep directions (ex., “Give Daddy the ball,” “Pick up your toy and put it on the table,” “Stand up, push in your chair, and go to the door.”) 
  • 2. Answering comprehension questions (who/what/where/why) based on a picture or story  
  • 3. Understanding vocabulary words (concepts that help us describe, talk about time, or quantity)  
  • 4. Inferencing and making predictions based on a picture or story (ex., Showing a symbol such as a stop sign and asking, “What do you think that means?”; When reading a story, stop and ask, “What do you think the character will do next?”)  


Expressive Language

Expressive language is our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings through words, gestures, signs, and/or symbols. It can be as simple as pointing to a desired object or as complex as writing a book about an area of interest.

Talking is the main form of communication people think about when discussing expressive language. And, although it is the most common, there are other types of communication that are just as effective. Some other examples include sign language, a picture exchange system, the use of a speech-generating device, or writing. But, keep in mind, these are just the systems we use to communicate. 

Expressive language is our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings through words, gestures, signs, and/or symbols.

What Are Expressive Language Skills?

Expressive language skills as a whole means using the unique areas of language correctly to effectively communicate what we’re thinking. These areas include:  

  • Using the vocabulary words we know (ex., Using words to make requests, to end an activity, or get attention; labeling items and their categories; describing an object) 
  • Grammar – choosing the right grammar forms, such as using past tense to reflect something that happened yesterday 
  • Sentence structure – putting words in the right order to make sense 


Strategies that can help develop children’s receptive and expressive language skills:  

  • Developing joint attention: Joint attention is when two or more people share their attention with an object or activity together and are tuning into communication about that thing.  
  • Play: Participating in different types of play and play routines allows children to understand their environment in different ways and learn new ways to use language. 
  • Social interaction: Having the opportunity to interact with different people helps teach social norms, be exposed to language in a naturalistic way, and learn to communicate with others appropriately  
  • Daily routines: Consistent routines throughout the day provide children with a predictable schedule, which allows them to better understand and use language appropriate for that situation. It exposes them to a consistent set of words in a familiar context.  

We hope you enjoyed learning about the difference between receptive and expressive language. Browse through the NAPA blog for additional resources!

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About the Author

Amanda is a Speech Language Pathology Assistant at NAPA Center. She loves to eat tacos and donuts and does not like cheese (despite the efforts of therapists she works with). She has a cat named Hendrix and they spend most of their time binge watching Netflix shows, trying out recipes on their Instant Pot, and “patiently” waiting for her husband to give her the green light to adopt a dog!   

About NAPA Center

NAPA Center is a world-renowned pediatric therapy clinic, offering pediatric speech therapy in traditional or intensive settings. If you believe your child may benefit from expressive or receptive language interventions, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. With multiple clinic locations worldwide, NAPA is committed to helping children lead their happiest, healthiest lives. Contact us today to discover how NAPA can help your child.

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