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.

Concepts and Directions

Following directions is a basic component of receptive language that involves completing routine or simple tasks, as well as understanding more complex 2-3 step directions. Language concepts include words that describe quality, quantity or location.

Understanding Questions

Understanding questions refers to the ability to process information asked by a speaker. A child 1-2 years old is expected to answer simple yes and no questions verbally or by shaking his/her head. As a child turns 3 years old, the expectation increases to answering ‘where’ and ‘what’ questions by pointing to respond or by providing a short answer. (i.e. “Where is your cup?”  The child should be able to point to the table and say ‘on table’).


Children begin learning vocabulary at an early age. Beginning in the first few years, children are learning how to point to body parts, clothing items and named objects. They then move on to identifying pictures and actions in books and scenes. Tangible objects (items a child can touch, manipulate, or do something with) are often learned prior to vocabulary in print (flashcards, books, etc.). Children can understand more complex sentences and conversations once they have established a foundation for vocabulary.


​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”

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