Language development – Concepts & comprehension


Concept development

The two main areas of language development:

Language development consists of both expressive and receptive skills.

  • ‘Expressive language’ refers to how we send messages to others, either that be via non-verbal means (body language, gestures, pictures, signs) OR verbal means (sound, vocalisations, words).
  • ‘Receptive language’ refers to what we understand, the word meanings and concepts we know, and the processing of what others say to us through non-verbal or verbal means. Receptive language is also commonly referred to as ‘comprehension’.

When parents raise concerns about their child’s language development often, there is a lot of focus on their child’s expressive language. While their receptive language is almost forgotten about.

What your child understands determines what words they can speak!

What receptive vocabulary and concepts should I teach my child?

I like to focus on approximate age ranges rather than specific age acquisitions. All children develop at their own pace, so there will be natural variability.
So here are the concepts and comprehension skills that I recommend for each age range.

Concepts to focus on based on age:

Concept development 1 to 3 year olds

Language development & the importance of receptive skills:

A child’s listening and comprehension skills develop before they begin speaking.

Think of how you might learn a new language. You will most likely understand more than you can speak! This is the same for typical language development in children. Children spend their first 12 months of life hearing and listening to language before they begin speaking. They also begin following your instructions and understanding familiar routine words such as sleep, drink, eat, dad & mum within their first year.

As such, when your child’s expressive language (speaking) is a little behind, it’s very important to focus on what they can comprehend and understand. In addition to focusing on the expressive use of general-all-purpose verbs.

In fact, large longitudinal studies conducted in the UK have found that people with unaddressed receptive language difficulties, were more likely to underachieve academically, have poorer social-emotional health and have continuing problems managing their lives at the age of 21.

Delayed language: Focus on comprehension & concepts

With typical language development, a child comprehends a lot more language and learns concepts before they begin speaking.

If you are concerned about your child’s language development, don’t just focus on what words or phrases they should be saying. Instead, make sure you also focus on their comprehension and concept development as well.

Remember, if your child does not fully understand a word, you cannot assume that they will speak it! Your child needs to understand the meaning behind a word in context before they can use that word.

Research studies have tested whether a late talker’s receptive language skills indicate better expressive language outcomes. The evidence suggests that stronger receptive language does predict better expressive language development outcomes.

Developing your child receptive vocabulary and comprehension of concepts is so important.

What to expect at different ages

Download the free comprehension handout below!


Ellis Weismer, S., Murray-Branch, J., & Miller, J. (1994). A prospective longitudinal study of language development in late talkers. Journal of Speech and Hearing
Research, 37, 852–867.

Rescorla, L., & Schwartz, K. (1990). Outcome of toddlers with specific expressive language delay. Applied Psycholinguistics, 11, 393–407.

Hawa, V. V., & Spanoudis, G. (2014). Toddlers with delayed expressive language: An overview of the characteristics, risk factors and language outcomes. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35(2), 400–407.


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