Expressive vs Receptive Language

by Stephanie Underwood for SPE/584

What is Expressive and Receptive Communication?

Expressive communication is learning to speak and use language.

Receptive communication is learning to listen, and understand language.

Birth to 4 months

  • Expressive - Newborns make sounds to express pleasure and pain; babies begin cooing, and laughing; vowel sounds are heard
  • Receptive - Newborns start or cry at loud noises; babies will turn heads toward sounds

4 to 8 months

  • Expressive - Babies begin to gurgle and babble; consonant sounds begin to be used (particularly "b", "m", "p", and "w"; will use sounds and gestures to indicate wants
  • Receptive - Babies begin to respond to "no"; notice changes in inflection; become aware of sounds other than speech; begin to appreciate music and rhythm; will seek source of new sounds

8 - 12 months

  • Expressive - Babbling begins to include more consonants; babies will use sounds other than crying to get attention; first words are produced
  • Receptive - Babies begin to listen when they are spoken to; will respond to name; enjoys peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake; begins to recognize names of familiar things

1 - 2 years

  • Expressive - Babies develop vocabularies of 10-15 words at 18 months, increasing to 40-50 words by 24 months; will ask two word questions, and speak in two word phrases; use mostly nouns and pronouns
  • Receptive - Babies will begin to point to objects when named; will follow simple prompts and understand simple questions; enjoy listening to stories, songs, and rhymes, generally in repetition.

2 - 3 years

  • Expressive - Vocabularies will increase to about 300-400 words; toddlers will use 2 - 3 words phrases, and ask simple questions; will have a word for most things
  • Receptive - Toddlers begin to comprehend two step commands and contrasting concepts such as hot and cold, or stop and go; will understand the significance of a doorbell or telephone ring

3 - 4 years

  • Expressive - Toddlers have a vocabulary of 600-1000 words, and will speak in 3-4 word sentences; speech is fairly fluent, and understood by non-family members NOTE - it is generally during this time frame that stuttering may appear, and a speech-language pathologist may need to be contacted
  • Receptive - Toddlers understand about 1500-2000 words, and can follow more complex directives; can understand who, what, and where questions; will respond when called to from another room NOTE - it is generally during this age range that hearing difficulties are detected, and may require the services of a clinical audiologist

4 - 5 years

  • Expressive - Children should be able to speak in long, detailed sentences, and tell a creative story; pronunciation should be good, although they may speak with a lisp, or have difficulty with "r", "v", and "th" sounds; may invent "tall tales" and participate in conversations with strangers
  • Receptive - Children enjoy being read to, and can answer straightforward questions about the story; should be able to comprehend almost everything that is said at home or school/daycare NOTE - children's ability to hear should not be questionable at this stage, nor should language comprehension

Interventions to build skills

  • Simply talking to babies, toddlers, and children helps to build language skills
  • Read to the child every day
  • Point out words everywhere; label items around the house or classroom
  • Demonstrate good listening skills
  • Always respond to children
  • Encourage children to ask questions
  • Give children ample time to answer questions; don't rush them
  • Limit television viewing


Bowen, C. (1998). Ages and Stages Summary - Language Development 0-5 years. Retrieved

from on [19 November 2014].

Child language development (2003). Retrieved from /


Preschool language disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from