top of page

Language Development in Early Childhood

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

As a Mom of 3 (18,13,5) and as a Kindergarten teacher I have seen first hand the successes and failures that children experience based on their language development in early childhood. My oldest son was diagnosed at 3 with expressive and receptive language disorders, he spent over a year 3x per week in expressive language disorder treatment and receptive language disorder therapy to build his language skills. Receptive language disorder is the inability to keep words that you have heard and expressive language disorder is the inability to retrieve and say those words. You can see where we had a big problem on our hands. Not only could Conner not retain words but he also could not find them in his brain to say them. If you think of the brain like a filing cabinet it is as if his words were filed in the wrong drawer and were lost when needed.

For Conner there was no specific language, objects were described as "things" and this often lead to frustration. Conner could not describe what he was trying to say. His lack of language skills made it difficult for him to learn how to read and he struggled in all areas of school. We had to expose him to as much specific language as possible through therapy, reading, and naming every object we used throughout the day. There was an intentional attempt to expose him to as much language as possible every day. I am happy to say that because of all of the intentional work we put into Conner's language development he is now a successful student with excellent grades who loves learning!

What is Receptive Language Disorder?

The inability to take in and store specific language. Think of the brain as a filing cabinet. New vocabulary gets lost in the file folders of the brain. Language goes in but gets filed in the wrong filing cabinet and cannot be found easily when needed.

What is Expressive Language Disorder?

The inability to find vocabulary in the brain and verbally say the specific words. When you ask a child the name of a familiar object they should be able to name it for you pretty quickly, in the case of those with expressive language disorder the child struggles to find the word, may become frustrated or may give you a blank stare.

Is there such a thing as Expressive and Receptive Language Disorder presenting together in the same child?

Yes, it is called Mixed Receptive Expressive Language Disorder. This is what my oldest son, Conner, was diagnosed with along with auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADD. The diagnosis of 6 different learning disorders was devastating. I was unsure of what Conner's future would look like. But after hard work and intentionally building vocabulary he has come so far. Conner is now 18 years old, an A-B student at a private college preparatory school and will be starting Paramedic School right after graduation. He has chosen a career which requires a different college experience than your typical 4 year program, however, he could be highly successful in a 4 year college if he has chosen that path. If you take one thing away from this blog post it is that THERE IS SO MUCH HOPE!


What other learning disabilities are typical to see in children with Expressive Language Disorder and/or Receptive Language Disorder?

These learning disabilities are often coupled with other learning challenges. As you could see from my oldest son's diagnosis. For us the addition of Auditory Processing Disorder made total sense since Conner's main issues were with language. If you cannot process what someone is saying fast enough or don't understand it at all it would be very difficult to aquire language and use language appropriately. Therefore all language use becomes non-specific such as naming every item "thing" or describing location as "over there."

There is also a higher instance of dyslexia associated with expressive and receptive language disorders.

What can I do to help my child if I suspect he/she is having trouble with specific language?

Schedule testing through your local school district, ECI Program or Private Speech Language Pathology Practice. If the child is in a classroom then the school district should supply testing at no cost. In our case we knew by 3 years old that Conner was going to need significant help for professionals who knew what they were doing. We went with private testing because our school district would not test him that young. It was costly, around $3000.00 but what we learned about our son, how to help our son and finding the correct therapists for his needs was well worth it for us. The earlier you can intervene for a child the better, early intervention is key with Expressive and Receptive Language Disorders.

Take away the non-specific language, ban it from the house. Expose the child to as much specific language as possible and search out strategies for language development in early childhood. Copy and paste it straight into your search box and find fun engaging activities that play to the child's interests. If the child loves dinosaurs then try to find an activity that includes dinosaurs for added buy in.

Will my other children automatically have receptive and expressive language disorders?

While we sometimes see this run in families from parents to child that does not mean all of your children will struggle with language development in early childhood. My husband had trouble with language aquisition and expression when he was young and then our oldest had the same issues, they are both also dyslexic.

That was not the case for our middle son, he is severely dyslexic but does not have any delays or issues with his language development.

What should already be happening in the classroom to encourage language development?

Classrooms that encourage language development should be rich with print, meaning bulletin boards and decor have words on them. Common items are labeled with picture/word cards. Teachers using specific activities to encourage language growth such as read the room, memory, labeling activities, listening activities and word work centers.

What s the number 1 strategy I should be using in my classroom or in my home to support a child with receptive and expressive language disorders?

The no. 1 strategy teachers and parents should be using to help the child is reading aloud to them, pointing out objects and naming them orally as they move through the story. We often take for granted that children know what common items are, however if a child has never seen an iron before and they are exposed to it in a book they need to be able to make the connection in the brain that the picture of an iron has a real physical item that is called an iron. Sounds simple enough and is second nature to most early childhood teachers but if you don't realize that some children need this to succeed you are missing a valuable tool that can have a huge impact on vocabulary development. And, this is just good teaching practice for all children not just those with expressive and receptive language disorders.

These types of disorders and a general lack of language development especially for our ELL students is missed too often. We as educators see the frustration, lack of progress and dislike of reading and school. This translates into a deliberate strategy to make sure that each child obtains and expresses specific language. This means that words like "thing" and "that" are discouraged and redirected to specific item naming. Children must use their words and not hand gestures or pointing to tell me what they need or want.

Through reading and conversation young children need to be exposed to as many words as possible, this also means that they need to understand what these words mean to help them make connections in the brain. The more interested they are in learning new vocabulary the higher success they will show in reading, math and socialization. Children need to be given the tools to communicate from the time they are infants and the exposure to new language should not diminish as they grow older. Being read to, reading on their own and literature rich environments create many opportunities for children to obtain and use new language. Rhymes, riddles, fingerplays and poems are also excellent and engaging ways to build language skills. Matching, categorizing, sorting and naming common objects as well as new objects can also stimulate language development and vocabulary skills.

Making your home or classroom literacy rich is essential to growing life long learners. Having exposure to books several times a day, labeling common objects and writing words as you use them will all pay off with a strong language base. I intentionally expose my children to language in my classroom everyday through our word of the day calendar, our picture word wall, reading storybooks, going through the Daily 5, listening skills worksheets and encouraging each child to use specific words through conversation.

Including labels and charts like this one is beneficial for all children but truly essential for children with Receptive and Expressive Language Disorders.

This also means our children need to be "unplugged" from all of the "silent" electronic devices we let them play with. This is why Baby Einstein ended up impacting children's speech and language so detrimentally, because there was no language! The pictures and music were captivating but if you don't know what the object being shown is called what else would you call it besides "thing" or use your finger to point to it. As children grow older with a lack of language skills they are unable to write proficiently and translate math problems from words to numbers. This can severely impact school success and can certainly be responsible for failing grades and an overall lack of progression in learning.

From teacher to teacher or from teacher to parent I would strongly advise you to make an intentional effort to expose your children to an abundance of language everyday, the impact on their development will show throughout their entire lives. From birth all the way through their schooling language development is the most important skill they will need for success.

Read, read, read to the child! Name the items you see in the pictures for them. When a sentence describes and item in the pictures point it out to the child and reiterate the description and name. These children need help making brain connections with language so we have to be intentional in providing oral and visual language experiences.

Try my newest Language Development Resources for free!

How would I use this Receptive and Expressive language disorders vocabulary building unit to help the child?

Matching and categorizing objects is an excellent way to support expressive and receptive language disorders. I created the following resource when my son was young and it has been invaluable in my classrooms over the years. Make sure to speak the words to the child as they are matching the items to their proper place. It is imperative that the children also hear the words not only see them. Also, children with language deficits cannot label common items on their own in the brain, they need consistent auditory exposure. Naming the place and each object orally while pointing to the picture and word will help the child make a connection in the brain, even better if you happen to have any of the items in real life to show, name and label. Be intentional in pointing out and naming objects from the unit when you see them in real life, ask the child to name objects they have been exposed to in the unit when they notice one.

Studying Animals and labeling their parts is another great way to introduce new vocabulary to your child with Expressive Receptive Language Disorders. My Animal habitat units include many of the activities I use to encourage language and literacy development in early childhood. These units include read the room, matching/memory, labeling and much more. These are fun and engaging activities for building vocabulary. Hop on over to my blog post for these here:

or click on the pictures to be taken to the products sales page.

Below are my brand new resources for language development in early childhood. These are excellent for all children and especially useful for those with receptive expressive language disorder. Many activity ideas are included.

After all of that information do not forget the 2 things I need you to take away from this blog post THERE IS SO MUCH HOPE AND THERE IS SO MUCH WE AS TEACHERS AND PARENTS CAN DO TO SUPPORT OUR CHILDREN THROUGH THIS! I wish you the best of luck when working with kiddos who have deficits in language. The process to build language can be a hard one but is well worth all of the extra work for their future!

Til next time!


Here are some other products that may interest you for building vocabulary skills and language development for early childhood.

375 views0 comments
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page