Language Skills

Language skills – expressive and receptive language

What is expressive language?

The ability to share thoughts, wants, needs, feelings and ideas with others through words, phrases and sentences. Expressive language skills can be in the form of talking, sign language, writing, gestures, facial expression or alternative communication.

What is receptive language?

The ability to understand what is being communicated by others including understanding the meaning of words, following simple and complex sentences and classroom directions: with or without the aid of gestures and environmental clues.

How do language skills develop?

Children vary in their develop of language skills , however they do follow a natural progression over time. Children learn to communicate with others through everyday interactions and play with their family, early educators and carers and their peers.

Difficulties with language development is different for every child.

What causes language difficulties?

There is no one known cause of language difficulties but some studies suggest there are some risk factors such as:

  • Chronic ear infections and hearing difficulties
  • Genetic factors
  • Socio-economic status2
  • Difficulties in pregnancy
  • Oral-motor difficulties1
  • Part of a primary condition such as autism, genetic disorders, general developmental difficulties, neurological impairment1
  • Lack of early exposure to communication with other people2

Is my child's language development delayed?

This is a common question asked by many parents. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about language development and what is normal. You may find your doctor is not concerned, but your kinder teacher is, and family members advise you to “wait and see”. All this advise can be confusing, frustrating, isolating, and make it hard to decide whether to see a Speech Pathologist or not.

There are however some red flags to consider:

Age Receptive language (understanding) Expressive language (talking and gesturing)
12 Months
  • Respond to sounds such their name being called, familiar people's voices, loud unexpected noises such as a door slamming, music
  • Engage with others through eye contact, smiling, laughing, verbally, with gestures, or through play
  • Respond to common words such as 'hi', 'bye', 'more', family names, familiar objects and pets
  • Babble and make early speech sounds such as like buh, puh, duh, mmm
  • Start to copy different sounds and play with sounds
  • May start to use a few words such as 'more', 'mummy', 'daddy', siblings or pet's names
18 Months
  • Understand up to 50 words and some short phrases
  • Follow simple instructions
  • Point to familiar objects, people and pets when named
  • Point to familiar pictures in books
  • Says roughly 6 – 20 single words
  • Copies lots of words and sounds
2 Years
  • Follows simple instructions that contain two parts eg. 'give me your plate and cup'
  • Answers simple questions such as 'what' and 'where'
  • Can point to several body parts such as their own, on other people or in books eg. 'tummy', 'foot', 'head'
  • Understand the words 'in', 'on' in relation to him/her self and objects eg. Your shoe is on the table
  • Says 50 plus single words
  • Joins two words together (e.g., 'my drink', 'me want', 'where mummy')
  • Use their tone of voice to ask a question (e.g. 'teddy go?')
  • Say 'no' to indicate they do not want something
  • Start to use 'mine' and 'my'
3 Years
  • Follow instructions that have two parts to them (e.g., get your shoes and put them in the car)
  • Understand simple wh-questions, such as 'what', 'where' and 'who'
  • Understand the concepts of 'same' and 'different'
  • Can group 'like' objects (e.g., animals vs a toys)
  • Recognise some basic colours
  • Say sentences with 4 – 5 words joined
  • Have a larger vocabulary for names, actions, locations and descriptions
  • Ask questions such as 'what', 'here' and 'who'
  • Talk about things that happened in the past, but may use '-ed' a lot (e.g., 'he goed there')
  • Join in conversations but don't
4 Years
  • Answer most questions about daily tasks
  • Understand most wh-questions, including those about a story they have recently heard
  • Understand some numbers
  • Show an awareness that some words start or finish with the same sounds
  • Use words, such as 'and', 'but' and 'because', to make longer sentences
  • Describe recent events, such as morning routines
  • Ask lots of questions use personal pronouns (e.g., he/she, me/you) and negations (e.g., don't/can't)
  • Count to five and name a few colours
5 Years
  • Follow three part instructions (e.g., put on your shoes, get your backpack and line up outside)
  • Understand time related words (e.g., 'before', 'after', 'now' and 'later')
  • Start thinking about the meaning of words when learning
  • Understand instructions without stopping to listen
  • Begin to recognise some letters, sounds and numbers
  • Use well formed sentences to be understood by most people
  • Take turns in increasingly longer conversations
  • Tell simple, short stories with beginning, middle and end use past and future verb correctly (e.g., 'went', 'will go')
  • Use most speech sounds, but still may have difficulties with 's', 'r', 'l' and 'th'
REF: Speech Pathology Australia Communication Milestones

When to see a Speech Pathologist?

Late talking is often concerning for parents and caregivers, and is easily treatable. Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers are encouraged by others to follow outdated advice such as “just wait and see”; “she will grow out of it”; “my youngest was a later talker and is ok now”; “he will suddenly start talking all at once” . The evidence however is overwhelming and shows that early intervention is one of the most efficacious types of treatment available and assists with better outcomes for your child. Reasons you should have your late talker evaluated include:

  • Early intervention is effective in treating and even preventing later difficulties such as speech and language disorders, reading delays, social-emotional delays
  • Late talking can be a sign of more complex underlying disorders including neurological, cognitive, motor impairment
  • Neuroplasticity supports early intervention as they are more flexible/plastic int eh early years of life, meaning it is easier to change the neural pathways in the brain to develop better language skills
  • Can reduce frustration in a child who can’t get their message understood


  1. Law J, Garrett Z, Nye C. Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and language delay or disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2003, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD004110. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004110
  2. Kuhl PK. Learning and representation in speech and language. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 1994 Dec; 4(6): 812–822
  3. Yeung HH, Werker JF. Learning words’ sounds before learning how words sound: 9-month-olds use distinct objects as cues to categorize speech information. Cognition. 2009 Nov; 113(2): 234–243
  4. Speech Pathology Australia Communication Milestones

Further Information

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