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Receptive Language Disorder (Comprehension and Understanding)

Children with receptive language disorder have difficulties with the comprehension of language, understanding words, sentence structures or concepts. Some children are good at compensating for a receptive language difficulty by being able to pick out key words in sentences and follow non-verbal clues such as the gesture or eye gaze of the speaker. In the classroom a child may become very good at following the cues of others and so appear to be understanding instructions. Sometimes a child’s expressive language skills may give the impression they have good language skills, but in reality they may have an underlying language problem.


At School

At school a receptive language difficulty will impact on the student’s ability to understand, follow classroom instructions and learn new information in the classroom. They may tire more easily when having to listen and process auditory information, have difficulty solving problems, and give the wrong answers to questions. They may rely on watching their classmates to gather clues about what they must do to complete tasks. They will require repetition of instructions. Some students may “switch off” or disengage when they consistently cannot understand what they are required to do.


Receptive Language Difficulties – Top tips for the classroom

  • Use more accessible language in the classroom
  • Use words that are familiar to the students
  • Reduce the complexity of your language
  • Pre-teach vocabulary
  • Provide descriptions of unfamiliar or complex vocabulary
  • Give a description rather than a definition and ask the student can use the word in a sentence
  • Explain the meanings of instructional words e.g. evaluate, distinguish between, enumerate. Explain or simplify instructional words:
    “Find an answer to” rather than “solve”
    “Make bigger” rather than “magnify”
  • Consider the classroom environment and seating
  • Gain the student’s full attention prior to speaking
  • Slow your rate of speech
  • Try to explain things to the student when the school environment / classroom is quiet
  • Use gesture with explanation and make sure he is looking at you when you talk
  • Use shorter, simpler sentences in a logical order, using pauses to allow processing time
  • Provide “Brain Breaks” or little bursts of physical activity to facilitate attention
  • Restate, rephrase and emphasize important information
  • Encourage the student to clarify if he has not understood what was said
  • Use visual supports for instruction (for example pointing, pictures, visual schedules etc.)
  • Allow extra time for the student to think and respond when answering questions, and encourage him to think about an answer prior to responding
  • Consider a peer-pairing or buddy system
  • Introduce new skills at a level at which the student can achieve 100% success and increase in small steps as a task becomes more difficult
  • Use a number line during Maths
  • Provide activities that are “hands-on” and practical to help with understanding


If you are concerned that your child has language problems, or is having difficulty understanding language, start by getting their hearing checked. If you still have concerns regarding your child’s receptive language development visit your local speech and language pathologist / therapist for a language assessment and advice, and the possibility of speech and language therapy. To learn more about  language developmental milestones see below or go to the Child Speech and Language Milestones section.


Top tips for parents to help their child’s understanding at home (comprehension, receptive language):

  • Talk about things as you do them so the child learns to link words with actions.
  • Play with your child! Play helps develop speech and language skills. Commentate on what your child is doing so they can link spoken words with their actions
  • Avoid complex concepts and language when talking to your child
  • Keep your language simple, your sentences short and clear, emphasizing key words
  • When talking to our child make sure you have their attention and there are no distractions (e.g. music, TV etc)
  • Always face your children when talking to them
  • Give your child to think, process and respond to questions and instructions
  • Look at books together as often as possible and name the items in the pictures, ask questions and discuss the stories
  • When you ask your child to do something, get them to repeat back what you have said to make sure that they heard you and understood
  • Occasionally give them a task that requires them to remember several things, to give practice at rehearsing information and remembering it. For instance, send them to the bedroom to get 2 or 3 different items
  • Try and encourage a good routine of sleep for your child through the week and focus on healthy options for breakfast and lunch as this can impact on listening and attention through the day
  • If you have a busy household with lots family members, make sure your child is given time to listen and to get their message across


Milestones for receptive language development

As with expressive language the development of a child’s communication skills vary enormously. Some children will develop certain skills quicker than others, and some children will vary significantly in the development of certain skills compared to their peers, even if there are no related problems. The table below is just a guideline and many experts vary considerably on what they believe to be the normal stages of development. You will see that many skills mentioned in the table below are repeated over several age groups as children are all different and some take longer to develop these abilities. So just use this chart as a very general guideline rather than read too much into it. There also may be some difference between boys and girls and when they develop certain skills.

To try and make this chart 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.

Milestones for receptive language Age  0 – 12 months
Birth – 3 months – Responding. At this age Bill will not be understanding what is being communicated but will begin to respond to the face of a familiar person by quietening or smiling.

4 – 6 months – Making sense of sounds. At this age, Bill is starting to make some sense of the world around him and beginning to localize the sound source, respond to his own name, discriminate between familiar carer and a stranger’s voice, and between angry and friendly tones. Bill will also start to explore, reaching out for objects and bringing objects to his mouth.

7 – 9 months – Understanding. Bill will start to respond to others and communicate with arm gestures and vocalisations. We may also see the beginnings of cause and effect understanding and as this develops he will repeat the same actions as he realises he has control of events. Bill may be able to recognise a couple of words by localising objects when named. An activity may be stopped when he hears the words “no-no” or his name is called. He also begins to recognize the names of familiar people.

9-12 months – Understanding and Interacting. Bill is now becoming a more interactive communication partner, giving objects, pointing and showing. His understanding of common words is increasing, he has an awareness of familiar people and situations and he understands phrases in set contexts e.g. “ready, steady, go!” Bill is also exploring more and more and is able to move objects from one hand to another and sometimes able to hold one object and pick up another with a different hand. His ability to follow simple commands is also increasing (e.g. “put that down”, “stop that”) although he is likely to get visual and intonation cues which will help him understand these commands.


Milestones for receptive language 12 – 18 months
Receptive understanding is now ahead of expressive language so Bill will understand more words than he can produce learning a new word every week. At 18 months some babies may understand up to 50 words and recognise many environmental sounds. Bill will also recognise objects and know what they are used for e.g. spoon for stirring or eating. Bill will start to be able to match identical objects. Bill will look for objects removed from his line of vision, knowing that when an object is out of sight it does not mean that it ceases to exist (the beginnings of object permanence). He will have learnt that some events are predictable and that an action causes a response e.g. flipping a light switch will turn on / off the light. He will learn the names of his body parts and be able to point to them on request and his ability to recognise familiar phrases will increase (especially when accompanied with gesture), often picking out key words in the middle of the sentence.


Milestones for receptive language 18 – 24 months
By this age Bill is understanding many single words and a few two word combinations. His receptive vocabulary is far in excess of his expressive vocabulary and he is possibly understanding 250 – 300 words. There is also an understanding of some “wh” questions (what/where/who) and he can point to major body parts, clothing items, toys and food when asked and is discriminating between songs. Bill is beginning to understand personal pronouns (my, mine, you) and starting to understand that things fit into categories (animals, food etc). His understanding and use of objects becomes more appropriate, with an ability to use simple conventional objects in an appropriate manner, e.g. hitting pegs with wooden hammer. Bill imitates some adult behaviour, plays simple games and points to objects in pictures. Object permanence is now well demonstrated and Bill is able to find familiar objects when not in sight. Bill’s understanding of cause and effect is also developing further, which makes certain toys more fun.


Milestones for receptive language 24 – 30 months
Along with the growth in expressive language Bill’s understanding of language is growing at a fast rate. He is following 2-step instructions easily and understanding sentences containing simple prepositions – in/on/under and different sizes (big / little). His understanding of pronouns also increases and he can differentiate between he / she / they / we. Bill probably now understands the meanings of between 500-900 words, which is far in excess of the words he actually uses expressively. Bill is also developing other skills, he can match identical pictures and shapes and is understanding number concepts one and two. Bill is well aware of cause and effect now and knows that pressing buttons and pulling strings make things happen.


Milestones for receptive language 30 – 36 months
Bill is comprehending commands at a 3-word level and language of more complexity. He is also able to indentify objects by use, e.g. “Which one do we drink out of? Sleep in? Sit on?”. He understands the concept of “one” and “one more” and matches colours and shapes, and objects to pictures. As Bill’s knowledge of concepts are developing he is learning how to sort, sequence (completes 3 piece interlocking puzzle), categorize and attempting simple counting. Bill’s awareness of time is also developing and he understands today, yesterday, tomorrow.


Milestones for receptive language 36 – 48 months
Bill’s comprehension is now at a 3-4 word level, he can process complex sentence structures and understands 1500 – 2000 words. As he reaches 4-years old he can follow a command with 3 directions, can track a 6 word sentence and can retell a short story. Bill is making inferences and can understand the consequences of his and other people’s actions. His understanding of concepts and how his world works becomes more developed over his 4th year of life he will learn to understand many more abstract concepts:
•    Concepts such as quality / texture / quantity / day / night / empty / full / same / different.
•    Locational prepositions – next to
•    Comparatives – I am taller than you
•    Understands odd one out, which one is missing
•    Concepts of “one,” “many,” “big,” “little,” “same,” “different,” “empty,” “full,” “clean,” “dirty,” etc.
•    Concepts of time such as “night” and “day”.
•    Understands difference in past / present and future
•    Answers “what is missing questions” and identifies objects missing from a scene
•    Understands day / morning / afternoon / night
•    Makes comparisons of speed and weight
•    Attempts to answer problem solving questions – “what if”
Bill can now sequence a 3-piece picture story, he will stay with one activity for eight or nine minutes and his concentration and attention skills have developed so he can sit and listen to a 15 minute story.


Milestones for receptive language 48 – 60 months
Bill is now understanding up to 2000 words. Bill is also developing another important skill, he has metalinguistic awareness, that is, he is able to think about and comment on what he (and others) are saying. His understanding and thought processes continue to develop and his comprehension is now at a point where he can follow and process instructions containing 4+ information carrying words, or an 8 word sentence. He can follow 3-step commands when items/objects are not present. His story retell capabilities increase and he can retell a story from memory using 5 sentences. Bill can hold a message in his head and deliver it to another person. Bill has learning to count, and can count objects to 4 or 5. He can sequence 3+ pictures and understands opposite concepts. He can name the primary colours on request and identifies crosses, triangles, circles, and squares, and makes comparisons of speed and weight.His imagination is now feeding into his speech and he speaks of imaginary conditions with “pretend” or “I hope.” He can focus on a single activity for 11-12 minutes and he helps plan activities. His understanding of time concepts increases and he can follow language such as “early in the morning,” “next month,” “next year,” “noontime” and the difference between past present and future and day, morning, afternoon, night. His awareness of concepts related to spatial arrangements, e.g., “in front of,” “behind,” “far,” and “near” also increases.


Milestones for receptive language 60 – 72 months
Bill can state his birthday, full name and address. He stays with one activity for 20 minutes and uses problem solving and complicated reasoning to solve a task. Bill can make logical relationships and solves problems verbally. He also demands increasingly detailed explanations of things, sometimes to the point the adult is unable to answer. His classification of objects has also increased in complexity and he classifies by form, colour, use, or composition, e.g., “You eat with a fork.” “A fork is made of metal.” He continues to learn and understand new concepts such as “more” and “less.” He describes people, places or things using attributes. He names a time of day associated with an activity and recites days of the week and uses simple money concepts. Bill is using 2000 words, but understands 6000, and continues to ask the meaning of new words. He can listen and attend for longer periods of time which is a skill he requires as he is now attending school. Bill has a good grasp on reality and understands the difference between reality versus fantasy.


Milestones for receptive language 72 months +
Bill’s understanding of the world around him increases especially as he is now attending school. He has to listen, process and learn, often only by listening to information. However, his auditory memory and processing skills are such that he does not have difficulties taking on board and storing new information.

For a more detailed overview of child development and milestones – Click Here.


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