Receptive Language

The process by which children come to understand and communicate language during early childhood.

What Is Receptive Language?

Receptive language includes a child’s ability to listen to, interpret, and understand symbolic communication. This includes comprehension of spoken language, interpretation of gestures and nonverbal communication, identification of objects/pictures, and the ability to answer questions.

What are the signs and symptoms of a receptive language delay or disorder?

Difficulty identifying objects and pictures on request, lack of response to directions, requiring repetition and/or additional assistance with following directions, lack of response or inappropriately answering questions, and/or struggling with conversation may be indicators of a receptive language disorder.

If your child is experiencing any of the above, he/she may be at risk for:

Difficulties with learning expressive language, developing and maintaining peer relationships, learning academic concepts, engaging in conversation, and/or attending to age appropriate activities.


Receptive language skills are listed below in developmental sequence according to age of typical acquisition:


Birth - 3 Months

Startles in response to loud noises; responds to caregiver’s voice; smiles/quiets when spoken to; discriminates between speech and non-speech sounds

3 - 6 Months

Looks toward sounds; responds differently to voice tone (e.g. angry, sad, happy); attends to music and noisy toys; watches a speaker when spoken to

6 - 12 Months

Looks for source of noises; stops when name is called; recognizes words for common objects; listens to new words; begins responding to simple requests (e.g. come here)

1 - 2 Years

Follows 1-step directions; understands simple questions (e.g. Where is…?); points to pictures in books when named; follows directions to find familiar objects; listens to simple stories; answers “yes/no” questions; understands spatial concepts “in” and “on”

2 - 3 Years

Identifies body parts; follows 2-step directions (e.g. “get your shoes and bring them to me”); follows directions with actions and adjectives; identifies actions in pictures (e.g. sleep, eat); identifies objects by function; understands simple quantity concepts; understands size concepts; identifies same vs. different

3 - 4 Years

Hears you when called from another room; understands simple “WH” questions (e.g. “What, Who, Where, Why”); understands questions about activities and the environment; learns from listening; answers questions about object function; identifies some colors and shapes; matches objects; understands words for family (e.g. “baby, granddad”)

4 - 5 Years

Attends to and answers questions about a short story; hears and understands most of what is said at home and at school; repeats 4 numbers by memory; follows commands with objects that aren’t immediately available; answers “When” and “How many” questions; understands superlatives; understands simple time concepts; understands positional terms “first, middle, last”

5 - 6 Years

Repeats sentences up to 9 words long; follows 3-step directions; responds correctly to a variety of sentence types; understands opposites; understands “left/right”