Receptive Language Disorder

Receptive Language Disorder
Click to view as pdf. 

What is a Receptive Language Disorder?

A receptive language disorder is an impairment in the comprehension of a spoken, written, gestural or/or other symbol system. Children with a receptive language deficit have trouble understanding questions that are asked of them, how to follow directions, and how to respond appropriately in conversation.


When a child has receptive language difficulties, he or she exhibits significant delays in language development.  These deficits affect how the child functions socially or academically.

Children with a receptive language impairment can have great difficulty understanding what is said to them.  Most children with a receptive language disorder will also have an expressive language disorder (difficulty using language to express ideas). Children with a receptive language delay can have difficulty with any of the following:

Receptive Language Examples

  • Understanding what gestures mean
  • Following directions
  • Understanding questions
  • Identifying objects and pictures
  • Taking turns when talking with others
  • Understanding the order of words in a sentence
  • Understanding plurals and verb tenses
  • Understanding age-appropriate vocabulary and knowledge about objects and sequence of events
  • Knowledge of the goals or functions of language (e.g. to obtain a desired object, tell a story, ask questions, comment)
  • Knowledge of how to use language to achieve goals (e.g. appropriately using language to get a desired object, )
  • Carrying out cooperative conversations (e.g. perspective-taking and turn-taking)

Causes of a Receptive Language Disorder:

The cause is often unknown, though it may be related to genetic factors, amount of exposure to speech and language and/or delays in general development. Receptive Language Disorders may also exist in children with developmental disorders such as Autism and Down’s Syndrome or medical problems such as a brain injury or brain tumor.

How to Diagnose a Receptive Language Disorder

Speech language pathologists diagnose this disorder and work to improve receptive language development.  When children exhibit language skills below what is expected for their age, developmental disorders are often suspected by the child’s parent, pediatrician or teacher. The child is then referred to the speech-language pathologist who will conduct a full diagnostic evaluation of the child’s receptive and expressive language skills, using standardized tests and informal measures. The speech-language pathologist will also evaluate other measures of communication to rule out other issues. The child’s vision and hearing must be screened prior to testing as well to achieve valid test results. Children exposed to multiple languages should be screened in all languages and tested in their primary language. This multilingual assessment framework is referred to as a “difference vs. disorder” approach.  Assessment data is obtained in all languages of exposure. Any noted errors or differences in communication skills are then analyzed and assigned to three main categories:  1) errors appropriate for the child’s age (developmental errors); 2) errors attributed to the interaction between the two languages spoken (cross-linguistic influence); and 3) atypical errors.

A receptive language disorder is diagnosed when an individual has difficulty understanding age-appropriate vocabulary, following instructions or understanding foundational communication skills such as turn-taking and perspective-taking during conversation. Careful diagnosis is important to distinguish receptive language disorder from other communication disorders and other diagnoses such as intellectual disability, autism and/or other physical and developmental problems which may first manifest as language problems.


Individuals benefit from a regular schedule of speech therapy with a speech-language pathologist. Parent and teacher involvement in the use of strategies learned in therapy provides maximum benefit.  Treatment for a receptive language disorder is tailored to each child’s needs.

Areas of treatment can include:

  • Strategies to improve the child’s ability to follow directions
  • Techniques to improve receptive comprehension of questions (e.g. who, what, where, when), age-appropriate vocabulary, and sequencing
  • Strategies for practice using language appropriately in social situations, such as taking turns in conversation.
  • Helping the child use other ways to communicate when needed. This may include simple gestures, picture boards, or computers that say words out loud. This is also called augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC.

Receptive Language Milestones Checklist

We combined receptive language norms from seven different sources to give a checklist to see if a child has receptive language abilities that are on par with his or her age.  If you are concerned about your child, speech therapy improves a child’s ability to communicate.

Norms for Birth to 3 Months

  • Recognizes parent voice and calms down if crying
  • Smiles when he sees you
  • Reacts to loud sounds
  • Calms down or smiles when spoken to
  • Starts or stops sucking or feeding in response to sound
  • Receptive Language Norms for Age 4 to 6 Months
  • Pays attention to music
  • Notices toys that make sounds
  • Tracks sounds with his or her eyes
  • Responds to changes in the tone of your voice
  • Receptive Language Norms for Age 7 Months to 1 Year
  • Listens when spoken to
  • Enjoys playing peek-a-boo
  • Turns and looks in the direction of sounds
  • Understands words for some common objects
  • Reacts to requests

Norms for Age 1 – 1 ½

  • Recognizes name
  • Follows simple one-step commands
  • Understands “no”
  • Points to recognized objects
  • Waves good-bye
  • Begins to claim certain objects
  • Identifies 2 or more objects or pictures from a group
  • Perceives emotions of others

Norms for Age 1 ½ – 2

  • Child has receptive vocabulary of approximately 300 words
  • Points to one to three body parts on command
  • Understands multiple forms of communication like gestures
  • Follows simple commands
  • Enjoys simple songs
  • Enjoys simple stories
  • Points to pictures
  • Listens as pictures are named
  • Responds to yes/no questions

Norms for Age 2 – 2 ½

  • Child has receptive vocabulary of approximately 500 words
  • Understands “one and “all”
  • Listens to a short story
  • Follows a series of commands
  • Identifies actions in pictures
  • Receptive Language Norms for Age 2 ½ – 3
  • Child has receptive vocabulary of approximately 900 words
  • Listens to longer story
  • Understands simple prepositions.
  • Matches color

Norms for Age 3 – 4

  • Child has receptive vocabulary of approximately 1,200 words
  • Ability to understand simple “Who?”, “What?” and “Where?” questions
  • Can hear you when you call from another room.
  • Hears the television or radio
  • Knows full name
  • No difficulty understanding following 2-part requests
  • Understand the concept of “two”
  • Ability to understand “in front of” and “behind”
  • Identifies hard/soft, rough/smooth
  • Identifies circle and square
  • Responds to commands involving two actions or objects
  • Answers questions about object’s functions
  • Can point to and match colors
  • Identifies simple shapes
  • Knows most body parts

Norms for Age 4 – 5

  • Pays attention to a short stories
  • Answers questions about short stories
  • No difficulty understanding same and different
  • Follows 3-step instructions

Norms for Age 5 – 6

  • Understands ‘left’ and ‘right’
  • Understands concept of time
  • Understands the meaning of most sentences
  • Sequences numbers

Norms for Age 6 – 7

  • Child has receptive vocabulary of approximately 20,000 words
  • Goldstein, B. (1990). Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Resource Guide for Speech Language Pathologists. New York, Singular Publishing Group, Inc.
  • How Does Your Child Hear and Talk? The American Speech–Language–Hearing Association.
  • Hulit, L. M., Howard, M.R. (2006). Born to talk: An introduction to speech and language development, Fourth Edidion. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Kester, E., Prath, S., Wirka, M., & Lebel, K. (2010, October 11). Typical Development in Bilinguals. Bilingual Assessment and Intervention. Presented at Education Service Center Region XIII. Austin, TX.
  • Rosetti, L. (2006). The Rose􀆫 infant‐toddler language scale. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems, Inc.
  • Wein, H., (September 2007). Is Baby Babbling on Schedule? News in Health. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from
  • Zimmerman, I.L., Steiner, V.G., & Pond, R.E. (2002). Preschool language scales‐4th edition. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corpora􀆟on.
  • Zimmerman, I.L., Steiner, V.G., & Pond, R.E. (2002). Preschool language scales‐4th edi􀆟on Spanish. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.


Expressive and Receptive Language Books for Kids:

Reading to your child will help with their expressive and receptive language development, especially repetitive books (Apraxia Kids) with pictures and basic concepts. Here are a few examples:

  • Jump, Frog, Jump! by Kalan R.
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear by E. Carl
  • It Looked Like Spilt Milk by C.B. Shaw
  • The Napping House by A. Wood
  • Goodnight Moon by M. Brown
  • I Went Walking by S. William
  • Froggie Gets Dressed by J. London
  • The Hungry Caterpillar by E. Carl

Receptive Language Disorder Books for Parents:

  • Childhood Speech, Language & Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know
  • The New Language of Toys: Teaching Communication Skills to Children With Special Needs, a Guide for Parents and
  • Teachers by Sue Schwartz
  • The Parent’s Guide to Speech and Language Problems by Debbie Feit
  • Routines-Based Early Intervention Guidebook by Bilinguistics, Inc. (to be used with the guidance of a speech-language pathologist)

 Support Groups:


Kaderavek, J.N. (2011) Language Disorders in Children: Fundamental Concepts of Assessment and Intervention, Allyn & Bacon

Paul, R. (2006) Language Disoders form Infancy through Adolescence. Assessment and Intervention. Mosby

Morrisey, B. (2012, May 18). Receptive Language Disorders.

Do you have more great resources for families or community members?  We would be happy to add any great resources to this webpage.  Please email us with the link or content.

Also check out: Prematurity Speech Implications and Resources

Are you in the Austin Texas Area and looking for Speech Therapy for a Receptive Language Disorder?

If you are looking for a speech language pathologist in Austin Texas to provide language therapy, we are here to help.  Contact our clinicians by visiting our Speech Therapy Austin Clinic Page and give us a call or send us a message.  

We look forward to serving you.

WordPress Lightbox

Join Us! August Back To School Conference: Autism, Diversity, & Professional Collaboration