Return to Language Difficulties

Expressive Language Disorder

A child with expressive language disorder or delay may present with normal speech skills, but the language they use will be equivalent to that of a younger child. For instance, they may be using shorter sentences, making grammatical errors, or have a low vocabulary knowledge. Some language difficulties are so severe that the child’s sentences make no sense and may even contain their own made up words (jargon).

See the Milestones section (or the section below) to get an idea how many words your child should be using at a certain age. A good way to enhance expressive language of young children is just to play with your child and feed language into their play. Let the child lead the play and do not feel you have to get them to talk or fill in the silences, just expand on the language they use (this is described in greater detail in the Child Speech and Language Development section).

At School

Once child starts school they will need expressive language to describe various concepts, acquire new word meanings, and understand spoken and written words when new subjects are introduced. They will also have difficulties articulating their thoughts, telling stories and news, and writing creatively. Their language disorder might also impact on relationships with peers, social interactions, and their ability to follow and take part in rule-based games.

If you suspect your child may have language difficulties contact your local qualified speech and language therapist / pathologist about the possibility of a language assessment and speech and language therapy. A speech pathologist will be able to provide activities, advice and programs to help you develop your child’s language skills.


Expressive Language Difficulties – Top Tips for the Classroom

  • When the student produces a sentence that is grammatically incorrect, acknowledge you have understood by repeating back the sentence correctly so they hear the correct version
  • Encourage the student to give you more information if they a gives a brief or vague answer
  • Focus on phonological awareness activities (also good for language development) such as rhyme production, segmentation, and blending
  • Look at books together and talk about the story, ask questions, and model back correct words and grammar
  • Encourage the student to complete activities that involve retelling and creating stories. Look at the pictures in a book and list the vocabulary, write the words down and then use them in a written or verbal retell. Provide feedback during the retell and add words and vocabulary as they talk.
  • Explicitly teach and revise vocabulary used in different subject areas, linking new words back to previously learnt vocabulary.
  • Use mind maps to explore classroom vocabulary to support understanding and learning of new vocabulary. Start with basic mind maps that name objects before moving on to more abstract ideas
  • Carry out expressive language activities that focus on vocabulary development:

 – Talk about synonyms (words that have the same meaning e.g. seat-chair, small-tiny-little), antonyms (words that have the opposite meanings e.g. hot-cold, high-low), and homonyms (words that have several     meanings e.g. “bat” – creature, cricket etc)

 – Categorise words and talk about how words fit into many categories e.g. “camel” – animal, desert animal,     transport, mammal etc.

 – Story telling activities – carry out story telling activities which rely on imagination and descriptive words

 – Carry out activities that involve translating or creating metaphors and idioms

 – Irregular words – practice activities that focus on using irregular verbs and plurals

 – Conjunctions – focus on activities that require the student to make sentences containing conjunctions (if, but, because, when, so etc.)


Top tips for parents to improve their child’s speech, expressive language and vocabulary development:

  • When talking to your child make sure you have their attention and there are no distractions (e.g. music, TV etc)
  • Look at books together as often as possible and name the items in the pictures, ask questions and discuss the stories. Encourage your child to tell you the story and give you as much information as possible
  • Take your children to the library and let them choose books that interest them
  • Try and encourage a good routine of sleep for your child throughout the week and focus on healthy options for breakfast and lunch as this can impact on listening and attention through the day
  • Be a good model – speak clearly and slowly and face your child when speaking. If your child says a word or sentence incorrectly, rather than correct them or ask them to repeat it, just say the word / sentence back to them correctly to show you have understood. This way your child always hears the correct version. This is how children learn language.
  • Make time to sit down with your child – even if it is just for a few minutes a day (although the more one-to-one time the better), spend some quiet time with your child, away from distractions. Look at a book together and talk about the pictures.
  • Turn off the TV and take out the pacifier/dummy – children do not learn language and social skills by watching TV, and new evidence shows that too much TV watching prior to starting school can affect listening and attention skills, which will impact on their learning once they start school.
  • Observe and comment – when you are playing with your child, take a step back, do not feel that you have to fill the silences, just comment on the things your child is doing so they can here (and learn) the new vocabulary.
  • Let your child lead – let your child lead the play, let them be the boss of play. This can build self-confidence and does not put pressure on them to talk and respond to the adult all the time.
  • Books, books, books – books can be used in many ways to develop language and early literacy skills. Evidence shows that children that have more exposure to books prior to schooling often find it develop early literacy skills earlier.
  • Sing songs and nursery rhymes – songs and rhymes contain rhythm and rhyme, skills that help with speech and literacy development.
  • Feed language in, don’t force it out – comment and expand on your child’s words and sentences, rather than asking them to repeat words. If your child says “car”, respond with “big car” or “yellow car” or “fast car”. This is how children learn words, by hearing new vocabulary and linking it to the items or events they are focussing on.
  • Make every opportunity a language learning activity – if it’s a trip to the shops, or bath-time, you can make every activity a language learning activity. Point to things, name them, sing a nursery rhyme, or ask a question. You don’t have to set aside a specific time of day to learn language, every activity is a language learning activity.
  • If you have a busy household with lots family members, make sure your child is given time to get their message across
  • For older children – talk about synonyms (words that have the same meaning e.g. seat-chair, small-tiny-little), antonyms (words that have the opposite meanings e.g. hot-cold, high-low), and homonyms (words that have several meanings e.g. “bat” – creature, cricket etc). Talk about Categories words and talk about how words fit into many categories e.g. “camel” – animal, desert animal, transport, mammal etc.

Milestones for expressive language

The rate at which children reach their speech and language milestones, depends on each individual, their genes and the environment that they grow up in. Some children will reach certain developmental milestones quicker than others, and some children will be slow to develop certain speech and language skills compared to their peers, even if there are no related problems. However, despite a bit of difference between children, we expect most children to develop certain skills within a certain time-frame.

This information below and other pages relating to milestones is just a general guideline to the stages of development. Many experts vary considerably on what they believe to be the normal stages of development. There may also be some difference between boys and girls and when they develop certain skills. However, if you do have concerns about your child’s speech and language development contact your local speech and language pathologist/therapist.


To try and make this example easier to read I have created a fictitious child called Bill. Bill was lucky, he had a childhood free of any illness or accidents and he had pro-active parents who played with him and gave him lots of quality 1:1 attention.


Expressive language development milestones

Expressive language development milestones   0 – 12 months  

Birth – 3 months – Intentional communication. Bill’s first intentional communication will be to vocalize for needs and wants, this is generally to express hunger and anger through crying.

4 – 6 months – Responding. Bill begins to respond more after 3 months with vocalisations to express pleasure and he may vocalize in response to singing.

6 – 10 months – Babbling. Bill develops babble over this period and it becomes more complex over time combining a few different consonants and CV (consonant-vowel) syllables. Bill may respond with babble when spoken to.

10 – 12 months – Jargon. Bill uses jargon containing long chains of babbled sounds and it starts to sound more like speech, but usually without recognisable words. Along with this, the chains of babble will contain different levels intensity intonation and pitch. He may occasionally vocalizes to greet an adult and begin to use some gesture with language e.g. shaking head for “no”.


Expressive language development milestones   12 – 18 months

Bill is now using a combination of gesture and words / vocalisations to request things (e.g. pointing and asking for “more”). At this point, the inventory of recognisable words is very small and it is likely that his understanding of words far exceeds his use of words. Bill may be able to imitate some words, but be unaware of their meaning. The mixture of verbalisation / vocalisation and gesture allows him to express emotions and communicate needs, wants and greetings. Although Bill’s expressive language will be limited it is only part of a much bigger picture of communication which is developing. He is understanding more words, learning social skills such as turn-taking, will be developing prosodic features (intonation, rhythm) in speech, and using gesture and facial expression.


Expressive language development milestones   18 – 24 months  

Bill’s use of a few single words (nouns) is at around 10 – 20 during this period, with the occasional simple 2-word combination developing. He begins to understand that everything has a name and may try and request an object by name. Bill can produce some animal sounds, refer to himself by name and says “no”. He is using words now more often than gesture, but has learnt to shake and nod his head for yes /no.


Expressive language development milestones   24 – 30 months  

As the growth in single words increases Bill starts to use a lot more 2-word combinations. He begins to use verbs, uses some personal pronouns “me/you” and the possessive pronoun “mine”, and begins to use his own name to talk about himself. He can now answer who/what questions and uses negation “don’t / no”. Bill imitates new words that others say and uses words in creative ways (e.g., a stick thrown into the sky becomes a bird).


Expressive language development milestones   30 – 36 months  

Bill is now using around 450 words and combining nouns, verbs, and adjectives “big / little” and in 3 word sentences. He regularly uses prepositions “in/on/under”, personal pronouns “you / me / he / she / they / we” and knows gender vocabulary. Bill is also beginning to form plurals and putting -ing endings on verbs. Now that Bill can put more words together he is asking more questions. He is able to recite common nursery rhymes, name 3 or more colours and can give his first and last name.


Expressive language development milestones   36 – 48 months  

Bill is now easily using 4 – 5 word sentences and using words to relate observations, ideas and relationships. His vocabulary is expanding to 900 words by age 4 and he is holding conversations using many correct grammatical structures (plurals, possession, pronouns, prepositions and adjectives). Bill has also starting using “when” and “how” in questions, as well as “so” and “because”. He is able to describe things more accurately and can tell you what certain objects are used for. Bill is also be able to answer simple problem solving questions.


Expressive language development milestones   48 – 60 months  

Bill is using up to 1500 words and his utterances are longer and more complex, containing more complicated syntax and concepts (see Morphology and Syntax in the Milestones section). Bill uses past tense correctly and adjectives, pronouns and prepositions are all part of his everyday language. His use of plurals are consistent, both irregular and regular.


Expressive language development milestones   60 – 72 months  

Bill is using 2000 words with an average sentence length of 5 -6 words. His grammar is now complex and he speaks fluently. His vocabulary will also continue to grow at a fast rate as he is now attending school. Bill will continue to learn new words (especially in the next few years of his life) and the complexity and content of his sentences will continue to increase through till adulthood.


Expressive language development milestones   72 months +  

Bill’s vocabulary continues to grow and he is able to converse and argue his point of view.

To see a more detailed overview of children’s milestones and development – Click Here


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