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Receptive Language Skills: How Your Child Learns to Understand Speech

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Baby’s first word is always a special occasion. As parents, it’s hard not to get invested in the journey your child takes as they learn to talk. Those first words are something magical that are remembered forever.

Few people stop and think, however – how did your kid learn to say that? We tend to take talking for granted, but if your baby can say words, that means that, at some point, they have to listen and understand words. In a way, that’s even more magical

Of course, language and speech skill development goes beyond the first “Mama” or “Dada”, all the way through the toddler and preschool years. There are two core skills needed to understand speech and languages: expressive language and receptive language. 

Below, we’ll be highlighting what receptive language skills are and why they are important as part of early childhood development. 

What Are Receptive Language Skills and How Are They Developed?

When it comes to human language, there are two skills that all of us master as a child – receptive and expressive language. Expressive language is the ability to formulate words. In other words, expressive language is speaking.

Receptive language skills, however, are the ability to understand the sounds that other humans are making, and then process them into further meaning. There are a lot of different receptive language skills that a growing child is going to have to master.

Receptive language examples include being able to understand and follow directions, being able to answer questions, and being able to identify objects and pictures. It also includes, as children get older, the ability to read and understand stories. 

These receptive language examples don’t just develop spontaneously. Every day, your child is listening and learning. In fact, babies start to develop receptive language skills before they even understand language. 

A baby’s ability to understand facial expressions and gestures represents them using the same abilities they’ll later use for understanding sound. Ditto for being able to maintain eye contact – your baby learns visually first and picks up sounds later.

Later on, your child will move from purely visual learning to auditory learning and will start to pick up on associating certain sounds with events or objects. This process will be sped up the more speechyour baby hears, and the more social interactions they engage in. The more you talk to your child, explaining things during playtime, the faster they’ll pick up on their receptive language skills. 

Receptive Language Skills by Age: What Milestones You Can Expect

Worrying about your child’s development is a perfectly natural thing to do as a parent. While every child is different, there does tend to be a general development of receptive language skills by age. 

In other words, there are certain milestones that children can be expected to hit at certain ages. The development of receptive language skills by age, in the first years, will normally look something like the following:

First Year

In the first year, children will start to be able to say their first words, generally at some point between 10 and 15 months. If they can say words, that means they’ve been listening to words. 

Generally, at the start of the first year, children will develop the ability to point to objects and people – though they may have a limited “vocabulary” of recognizable objects. They should be able to recognize their name, and understand simple commands such as “yes” and “no”.

As the first year progresses, kids will begin to expand their vocabulary of words they can understand and will be able to understand commands and requests beyond a single step. At this stage, kids should start to pay more attention when pictures are pointed out to them, or when stories are read to them. They’ll also begin to be able to give yes or no answers to questions.

Second Year

In the second year, you should start to see your child’s receptive language skills start to evolve. They will be able to carry out more complicated commands, identify even more objects, and be able to differentiate between “one” and “all” of an object. They’ll also be able to start to identify actions, not just objects, in pictures.

As the second year progresses, you should see a significant increase in how long your child can hold attention during storytime. This means that you can start to read longer and more complicated books. 

By the end of the second year, they should be able to understand concepts such as size and color when spoken to them. 

Third Year

As the third year progresses, your child should have no difficulty understanding even more “qualifiers” for objects – such as “behind” and “in front of.” They’ll also be able to better understand descriptions of objects and specific shapes. 

For some receptive language skills examples – they’ll be able to understand if an object you want them to find is hard or soft, or if it’s a circle or square. They’ll be able to easily match colors at this age and carry out commands involving multiple actions and objects. 

Fourth Year Onwards 

Once your child reaches their fourth year, their receptive language skills should start to snowball. They should have a vocabulary of close to 3000 words by this point and be able to give articulate answers to questions regarding an object and its function. 

This is also the year where the ability to understand numbers will start to manifest. By the time they reach age 5 or 6, they’ll be able to understand most of what they hear and carry on conversations. 

Simple Ways to Encourage Speech and Language Development at Home

Of course, not all children meet these milestones perfectly. It can be worrying as a parent if you feel that your child is falling behind in their receptive language skills. This can sometimes be a difficult problem to spot. 

Some children are simply naturally shy but still understand fully what is going on around them. Other children might be very talkative, but have trouble with taking the time to fully understand concepts and translate them into clear speech.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be a speech therapist to give your child a helping hand! There are plenty of ways to develop receptive language skills at home through fun activities. You and your child can have fun together, and build their ability to process language. Some of the most fun ways include classic bonding activities such as:

Board Games

Board games are back in a big way and it’s not hard to see why. Face-to-face interaction is something to be treasured, especially with family members. Simple board games for children are also a great way to let them practice listening and understanding instructions. 


Cooking with your children is both a great way to help build the ability to reinforce following instructions, while also helping develop object identification. You can ask your child to pass you certain things that you need while cooking. 

Reading Picture Books

When reading a picture book to your child, ask them to try to identify what you are pointing to in the picture. You can then ask them on future readings of the story to identify where things are on the page. 

Master Receptive Language With Vivvi

At Vivvi, receptive language is one of the core areas of development that we focus on. Whether at our New York locations or in your own home, we’re dedicated to helping your child master receptive language skills, opening up an entirely new world of understanding to them. 

If you’d like to help boost your child’s receptive language skills, don’t hesitate to contact us – we’ll hear you loud and clear!

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