Receptive language (Understanding language)

Receptive language is the ability to understand language and words. This is different to expressive language. A child’s capability to understand and follow instructions relies largely on receptive language skills. It is typical for a child to understand more language than they use. Please see below for further information.  

Understanding Development

This is a guide to how we expect children to develop their understanding of language. All children develop at different rates so if you are worried then please see our referral guide to check if you need to make a referral.



3-12 months

  • Recognises parent’s voice and is calmed by this
  • Shows excitement at the sound of voices/noise
  • Understands frequently used words e.g. “all gone”, “bye bye”
  • Stops and looks when own name is called
  • Understands simple instructions supported by gesture and context


12-24 months

  • Understands more words than they can say
  • Understands simple instructions in context e.g. “stop” and some two word phrases e.g. “shoes on”
  • Recognises and points to pictures in books
  • Can name familiar objects e.g. “car, apple”
  • Understanding of single words develop rapidly – by age 2 vocabulary understanding can be anywhere between 200 – 500 words


2-3 years

  • Developing understanding of simple concepts e.g. “big/small, on/under”
  • Understands short phrases e.g. “get your shoes”, “egg and toast”
  • Understands simple “who”, “what”, “where” questions but not “why”
  • Understands short narratives with picture support

3-4 years

  • Understands questions and instructions with two parts 2.g. “finish breakfast” and “put your shoes on”
  • Understands “why” questions
  • Aware of time in relation to past, present and future e.g. “today, yesterday and tomorrow”


4-5 years

  • Able to understand simple story without pictures
  • Understands sequencing instructions e.g. “first…next…last”
  • Understands adjectives e.g. “hard, smooth etc.”
  • Understands humour and laughs at jokes


5-7 years

  • Understands if message is unclear and will ask for further explanation and clarification
  • Understands complex 2-3 part instructions e.g. “Finish your lunch then go back to class and start reading the topic book”


7-9 years

  • Can clearly identify when they have not understood e.g. “what is a meadow?” , “a green what?”

9-11 years

  • Follows longer unfamiliar instructions e.g. “put the blue folder that’s on top of my desk into the bottom drawer of my desk.”
  • Understands different question types: e.g. open, closed, rhetorical
  • Understands simple idioms, unable to explain what they mean e.g. “its raining cats and dogs”


References: ICAN (2011) Nippold, Marilyn A. (2007

Strategies to support understanding of language

Please use the strategies listed below to encourage and support your child with their understanding of language. Wherever possible, please use your home language when communicating with your child to ensure they are hearing a good language model.

1. Reduce background noise (if possible)

This reduces distraction and means your child can hear you more clearly

2. Get your child’s attention

It is important your child can hear what you have to say. So before giving any instructions or asking questions get their attention by calling their name, touching their arm to focus them in or asking them to look at you/objects/pictures

3. Use visuals

These will help to reinforce what you are saying and could include signs and gestures, pointing, objects, symbols/pictures, and photographs

4. Shorten the instruction

Rather than saying “finish your food, put away your toys, and get your coat on” say “finish your food” and then say, “put away your toys” and then “now get your coat”

5. Speak clearly

Don’t talk fast and give your child time to hear what you are saying properly

6. Repeat information

Hearing what you have said multiple times gives your child the time to take in and process information. It is important that you do not change the language used in each repetition

7. Emphasise key words

This will help your child attend to the important words in your sentences. For example, “pass me the scissors” when there is a choice of scissors, pencil, and paper

8. Allow for pauses and wait for your child to initiate or respond

Give your child time to process information and put together a response

9. Accept all attempts of communication as intentional

If your child uses non-verbal communication such as pointing, reaching, or facial expression, take this as intentional and provide a language model while responding. For example, if your child reaches for their drinking cup say “drink, please” while giving them their cup

10. Repeat and build on learnt information

This helps your child link information together and build their knowledge through association. For example, if you have learnt about cars, you may introduce other vehicles

11. Check child has understood instructions or new information

Ask the child to repeat back what you said in their own words to see if they have understood.

12. Encourage your child to ask for repetition:

  • Have “ask me to say it again” as a rule
  • Be a good role model and ask others to “say it again” if you did not hear what they said or if you have forgotten
  • Praise your child when they ask for repetition

13. Encourage your child to ask for clarification if they do not know what a word means:

  • Have “ask what the word means” as a rule
  • Be a good role model and ask others “what does that mean?” or “what is that?” if they use a word that you have never heard before
  • Praise you child for asking for clarification

14. Use non-verbal or alternative methods of asking for help/repetition/clarification

If your child is very shy they may not verbally ask for support so you could introduce using a particular gesture or object e.g., a counter to ask for help

15. Pre-teach vocabulary

Speak to your child’s school and ask them for a list of topic words that will be coming up in the next half term. Use objects, videos, pictures to help your child learn what the new word means

16. Encourage your child to use a ‘task board’

This will help them remember several instructions and check their progress with a task e.g., you could have pictures of what the child needs to do and they can remove each picture or you could write a list of tasks to complete and they have to tick each one when completed

17. Use a visual timetable

Use pictures to show what you will be doing (this could be for the morning/ afternoon or the whole day). Each picture is removed after the activity e.g., you might include “breakfast, school, snack, homework, tea/dinner, T.V. games, bedtime”. This is to help reduce anxiety around transitioning and informs your child of what is coming next.

Game/Activity ideas

Before carrying out any games or activities ensure you have the child’s attention by calling their name, touching their arm to focus them in or asking them to look at you/objects/pictures.

18. Understanding action words

  • Use toys e.g., doll/teddy to model and label actions e.g., “brushing doll’s hair”, “washing teddy’s foot”. There should not be an expectation for your child to repeat instructions
  • Give each other instructions e.g., “pat your head and clap your hands”, “wash doll’s hair”

19. Understanding prepositions (where/when something is in relation to something else)

  • Use objects to model and label prepositions e.g., “the car is under the chair”, “the dog is behind the tree”. There is no expectation for your child to repeat instructions. You could do this one preposition at a time so your child hears the same preposition several times
  • Hide things in the room and give each other clues e.g., “to find the doll look next to the bookcase”, “the pencil is hidden in front of the dollhouse”
  • Make a photo book of different prepositions with your child demonstrating each one e.g., on the chair, under the table, behind the door
  • Gather some toys and give each other instructions e.g., “put the car on the table”, “put the teddy under the blanket”

20. Understanding adjectives

  • Model use of adjectives e.g., “the loud noise is giving me a headache”
  • Use pictures to visually show different adjectives e.g., the big lion vs the tiny mouse
  • Give written sentences and ask your child to underline the adjective
  • Give sentences with a gap for your child to add an adjective e.g. “the soup was very….”
  • Ask your child to describe a picture and identify what part of their sentence could be extended using adjectives.

21. Understanding same/different concept

  • While playing with Lego or beads ask the child to find one that is the ‘same’ or ‘different’ as the one you have
  • Play a matching game with four or five pairs. Throughout the game comment on whether the pictures turned over are the ‘same’ or ‘different’ at the end ask the child to find the ‘same’ picture as the one you are holding

22. Similarities

Choose two items belonging to the same category and discuss their similarities e.g., “how is a car and van the same?”

23. Differences

Choose two items belonging to the same category and discuss their differences e.g., “how is a car and van different?” This is more challenging than discussing similarities, but it encourages your child to think of specific details related to each item 

24. Understanding before/after concepts

  • Line up several objects/toys and ask, “which one is before the….?” Or “which one comes after the …?” If your child is incorrect, model the right answer
  • Line up several objects/toys and give instructions e.g., “point to the car before you point to the teddy” or “point to the apple after you point to the lion”
  • Take turn giving each other instructions including ‘before’ and ‘after’ e.g., “clap your hands before you jump” or “touch the ground after you pat your head”

25. Antonyms

Choose a word and try to come up with a word meaning the opposite e.g., “hot” and “cold”

26. Synonyms

Choose a word and try to name a word that has a similar meaning e.g., “big” – huge. This is more challenging than naming antonyms but helps build your child’s retrieval skills. To make it more difficult try to name two synonyms

27. Understanding questions

Blank level one – talking about the here and now:

  • Ask your child what they can see/hear
  • Ask your child to name objects/people/actions e.g., “who is that”, “what are you doing?”
  • Ask your child to recall something they saw e.g., “what did you see?”
  • Ask your child to imitate you e.g., “say this…”

Blank level two – require the child to focus on specific events or separate objects

  • Ask your child to describe an event e.g., “what happened?”, “what do you remember?”
  • Ask ‘who/what/where’ questions
  • Ask your child to discuss similarities/differences of two items
  • Discuss characteristics e.g., “what size is it?”, “what colour is it?”
  • Naming items from a category e.g., “tell me something that is a…”

Blank level three – require the child to process information that is not present

  • Ask your child to describe what might happen e.g., “what will happen next?”
  • Follow two stage directions e.g., “do….and then do…”
  • Give directions to someone
  • Identify alternatives e.g., “tell me something else we could use instead”

Blank level 4 – requires the child to think about the relation between objects/people/events and justify/explain

  • Identifying cause and providing solutions e.g., “why did this happen?”, “what could we do?”
  • Ask your child to make predictions e.g., “what will happen if…?”
  • Ask your child to make justifications e.g., “why?”
  • Explaining observations “How can we tell?”
  • Selecting a method e.g., “what could we use?”
  • Explaining/justifying the method e.g., “why would we use…?”

Descriptive Commentary Video

Accessibility tools

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