Receptive Language

Is your child not getting what people are saying?

Is your child:

  • Asking, “What?” all the time?
  • Not getting it, even after you explain something clearly?
  • Having a hard time following directions at school?
  • Giving you an inquisitive look after hearing a story read aloud?
  • Responding to questions with an off-topic answer?
  • Often saying, “I don’t know?”
  • Refusing to get started on a task; explaining, “I don’t know what to do?”


If you answered yes to the questions above, your child could be having a hard time with comprehension or receptive language.

At home, you might notice that you need to often repeat chores, instructions or steps to complete a task.

At school, the teacher may report to you that your child is not following along in class or does not seem to understand what to do. Your child may have difficulty understanding vocabulary words in several subjects in school.

Your child may act frustrated or may easily give up on a task because he or she is not sure what to do. He or she may cry easily or may say subjects requiring reading are too hard or take too much time. He or she might avoid reading long books or only choose to write very short stories due to having a hard time composing complex sentences.

It may take too long for your child to finish homework or to start an assignment. Your child may sit and stare at the page after reading directions, feeling unsure what is expected.

Receptive language is the ability to understand conceptual information, whether spoken or read. A child must understand the meaning of words and how words are used in context.

When a child reads something, he or she should know what the information means, and, if spoken to, he should understand what is being said. With a breakdown in language processing, an individual will be confused or will not understand what he is reading or is being asked to do.

For a child struggling with receptive language, completing work may feel like reading a foreign language; the child might be able to read the words fluently but not understand what they mean. If asked questions, he or she may look confused and won’t be able to correctly restate what was learned.

A child may not be able to answer basic questions such as:

  • “What happened?”
  • “Why did it happen?”
  • “Who was in the story?”
  • “Where did it take place?”
  • “When did the story happen?”

These examples are basic comprehension questions a child might not be able to answer after being reading to or reading. Challenges here could suggest a breakdown in understanding.

Sometimes, a child might even make up his or her own story using some facts from what was read or heard, but it is clear that the child did not understand the whole story.

It may appear that the child cannot remember or recall information. He or she may require an increased amount of time or a repetition of the directions to complete a task. Abstract language tasks may be difficult. Complex math problems or tasks that involve multi-steps can create frustration at school, especially when a child is asked to do them under time constraints.


Receptive language develops early in childhood; children understand and soak up language long before they can express themselves or speak. Children learn to understand vocabulary words and their meaning when given a variety of cues, which include visual cues, auditory cues, and gestures.

Receptive language can be defined as the ability to understand language by utilizing attention, active listening, and the ability to process information that can be presented in an auditory or visual modality.

A child has to formulate meaning with what is heard and to create a response. Young children may demonstrate they comprehend something by speaking, using gestures, or repeating an action.

A breakdown in receptive language will cause a child to demonstrate difficulty with expressive language. Language must be understood before appropriate expressive language skills can be developed.

Usually, receptive language difficulties are evident before age 4. The cause is usually unknown, but in rare cases a receptive language disorder can be caused by a neurological event such as a stroke, brain injury, or a tumor.

Other causes could be a genetic condition or a syndrome such as Down syndrome. Cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, autism, a family history of language disorders, or a Failure to Thrive could also result in challenges with receptive language. Premature birth can also lead to language difficulties or delay.

English language learners may appear to have a receptive language disorder. However, these challenges may be due to limited exposure to vocabulary and expressions, and this difficulty may not be a true receptive language disorder. With repetition, time, and cueing, comprehension should improve. If a receptive language disorder is present, it will appear in both languages in a bilingual child or multiple languages in a multilingual child.


A child with language processing challenges will do better with a task when given cues, time to respond, and choices of how to do something.

Think to yourself, ‘how could I teach this without using many words?’

For example, when teaching your child the morning routine, you might first demonstrate how to brush your teeth, get dressed, and come your hair. Then, put the routine on a poster in the bathroom and simply point to each step.

Allow your child extra time to get started on tasks but stay close-by to ensure it gets done. Finally, allow the child choice in what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, or what tasks he or she can do independently vs. those tasks that require your help.

For homework, when the steps down into smaller steps with visual cues and repetition during projects and complex assignments, he or she will typically demonstrate more success and less frustration.

Reading comprehension and listening comprehension are required in all subject areas in the academic setting for a student to be successful. Receptive language difficulties or problems with the processing of information can also, in turn, affect grammar for written language skills.

A child may not understand the rules of grammar and may have difficulty with writing due to poor comprehension of language skills. For these reasons, if you suspect your child has a receptive language disorder, it is important to seek help from your child’s school. A speech therapist can assess whether or not a language disorder is interfering with your child’s education.

If the concern is impacting day-to-day communication but not academic success, it may be that a private speech/language pathologist could provide a diagnosis, treatment, or both.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Communication skills (Communicating): children with receptive language problems may struggle to communicate with family, friends, or classmates
  • Academic problems (Learning): children with receptive language issues may also have difficulty with reading, writing, or following directions in class
  • Verbal Comprehension: children with poor receptive language may have trouble with the cognitive ability to understand language
  • Social skills (Socializing): children with receptive language challenges may have trouble with social skills
  • Emotional problems (Feeling): children with poor language skills may also have emotional disabilities, or mood symptoms
  • English Language Learner: children who are learning English may have difficulties with receptive language and comprehension
  • Pragmatic Language: children who have difficulties with receptive language and understanding peers may also have poor social language skills (pragmatics)


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Language disorder: expressive or receptive language disorder may be indicated by poor receptive language skills
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: children with autism often have poor receptive language skills
  • Specific learning disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): children with learning disabilities may have receptive language challenges
  • AD/HD: children with attention challenges can struggle with poor receptive language skills, particularly following directions
  • Intellectual Disability: children with low IQ or limited intellectual functioning may have language problems
  • Hearing Loss: children with receptive language problems may have hearing problems; your child should be evaluated by a doctor before being diagnosed with a language problem


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Clear Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist or speech therapist
  • Speech-Language Pathologist: to provide therapy for receptive language problems and communication skills
  • Licensed Psychologist: to diagnose associated disabilities such as autism or ADHD and provide social skills treatment or other therapies
  • School Psychologist: to help with academic or social challenges that may be associated with language problems

These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:


[1] Apel, Kenn & Masterson, Julie (2012). Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers.


[2] Bernstein, Deena K. &   Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third-Sixth Editions.


[3] American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

[4] Law, James; Garrett, Zoe & Nye, Chad. (2003). Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and language delay or disorder.


[5] Pfiffikus (2016). Following directions activity book | toddler–grade K – ages 1-6.


Image Credit:
Description: father and two children sitting on grass having an interesting conversation outdoors in a park.
Stock Photo ID: 93035672 (Big Stock)
By: imtmphoto
How to help a child with listening problems
Previously licensed on: November 23, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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