An Overview of Receptive Language Issues

When Your Child Has Difficulty Understanding Spoken Language

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Individuals with a receptive language disorder may have difficulty understanding spoken language, responding appropriately, or both. This leads to substantial difficulty communicating and often leads to problems in school.

What Is a Receptive Language Disorder?

A receptive language disorder is a type of learning disorder affecting the ability to understand spoken, and sometimes written, language. It is believed to involve differences in language processing centers of the brain. These disorders can result from inherited conditions or may be caused by brain injuries or stroke. Receptive language issues can also be a symptom of developmental disorders such as autism and Down syndrome.

A receptive language disorder is not, itself, a learning disability but instead a medical issue that can cause children to fall behind in academics. If the disorder isn't easily or quickly resolved, the learning gap can expand. Thus, children with a receptive language disorder may need special academic support even though they don't have an "official" learning disability.

Problems in Language Comprehension

Children with receptive language disorders often have difficulty organizing their thoughts while trying to understand others, which creates problems in communicating verbally or organizing their thoughts on paper. They have difficulty with language processing and the connection between words and the ideas they represent. Some may also have problems with the pronunciation of words and speech/sound production.

Since children must have a grasp of spoken language before they themselves can use language to communicate, most children with receptive language disorders will have an expressive language disorder as well.

Expressive Language Difficulties

In some cases, children will have difficulty with both expressive and receptive language. Expressive language is the ability to use spoken or written speech correctly, appropriately, and effectively. Issues with expressive language may have their basis in a variety of challenges ranging from neurological issues to muscle control problems to cognitive disabilities.

People with a receptive language disorder may appear less capable than they really are because they do not effectively express themselves. However, in some cases, their understanding of language and subjects in school is often as well-developed as that of other learners their age. They may simply be unable to express that understanding.

Sometimes, children with speech disorders continue to struggle with communication over time. Even when children with speech disorders "catch up" to their peers in terms of their communication skills, the increasing demands of school and social interaction may cause them to struggle.


Issues with receptive language can be hard to spot in very young children, and it isn't until it is time for them to start talking that parents may notice a problem.

A problem in communicating orally is one of the most common signs of a language disorder.

Other signs include:

  • Difficulty following simple directions
  • Might understand stories read to them but not be able to describe them even in a simple way
  • A limited vocabulary compared to their peers and has trouble learning new words
  • Substitutes general words like “stuff” for more precise words, or says "um" more often than not
  • Is less talkative and has fewer conversational skills than their peers
  • Seldom volunteers ideas or discusses feelings
  • Certain words and phrases are used over and over again
  • Confuses verb tense and leaves out keywords
  • Is easily frustrated by the inability to communicate an idea or thought to you
  • Can pronounce words and sounds, but uses limited sentence structures when speaking (or sentences don't really make sense)


If you believe you or your child has a receptive language disorder, contact your school principal, school counselor, or school district office for information on how to request an assessment.

Having your child evaluated for a hearing problem is also recommended, as hearing issues are a common cause of language problems.

Parents of young children should be aware that language comprehension begins before the age of three or four years old. Kids with developmental language disorders usually start speaking later than other children their age. At your toddler's well visits, keep your pediatrician up-to-date about the number of words your child can say prior to each visit and whether you have any concerns about delays in speech.


The next step is to work with a speech-language pathologist or speech therapist to develop an effective individual education program for your child. This may involve at-home or in-school speech therapy sessions, providing ways for your child's teacher to help them in class, and/or the presence of a speech therapist in a language-based classroom.

Typical strategies focus on language therapy to develop the important connections between letters, sounds, and words. Vocabulary development, rehearsal, and practice of using language in social situations may be helpful. In severe cases of receptive language problems, therapists may use multisensory techniques and whole language approaches.

For students in college and vocational programs, their school's advising office can assist with finding resources to help ensure success.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Rosenbaum, S., Ed. Overview of Childhood Speech and Language Disorders. National Academies Press (US); 2016 Apr 6.

  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Language disorders in children. Updated June 9, 2021.