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What is receptive language?

‘Receptive language’ is the term used by health professionals when describing the comprehension and processing of information through words and language. This includes how one is able to listen, discern and express information, and understanding the content of what is being said and portrayed. Receptive language also includes interpreting visual and auditory information from one’s surroundings and environment, written information, deciphering the context of routines, grammar and conceiving notions of sizes, colours, shapes and time. Receptive language also includes the understanding of context in a situation and anticipating what might follow in a routine. For instance, as children grow up, they often grow to learn their routine of getting ready for school (e.g. knowing that it is time to brush their teeth after breakfast) or interpreting that when their mother or father has the dog’s leash they are about to take the dog for a walk.
In order for a child to establish receptive language skills, they need to also possess sufficient ability and skills in concentration and attention, non-verbal communication skills (e.g. facial expressions, gestures, eye contact), engagement in play and recreational activities and social skills to be able to interact and negotiate with peers and recognizing social norms and etiquette.

The importance of receptive language

For a child to be able to develop adequate communication skills, receptive language is vital. Children with deficits in this area often show poor ability to follow instructions, requests or answer questions appropriately. These deficits usually affect the child’s engagement in their personal lives, as well as how they interact and perform in school. It is not uncommon for children with these difficulties to display poor concentration in class, inability to understand the curriculum, or behavioural problems. Moreover, it is pivotal to address any deficits as early as possible, as failure to do so will likely lead to ongoing communication problems in adolescence and adulthood, ultimately affecting the individual’s socialisation and ability to gain and maintain employment.

Speech therapy to help receptive language problems

Speech therapists work with people with a variety of communication deficits or disorders. As with most interventions, the initial stage involves gaining a thorough understanding of the child’s medical personal history and development, their current level of functioning and areas of particular difficulty which therapy will aim to address. Once this has been established, the speech therapist will develop a unique plan for sessions based on the child’s needs.
Speech therapy for children with receptive language issues often involves improving specific areas such as eye contact, using simple language with nominal instructions, asking the child to reiterate what has just been relayed to them, supporting the child to ask for clarification or repetition of what is said, emphasizing certain words for the child to learn, using visual aids (e.g. pictures, body language, gestures), modelling to the child the task being taught so they learn to recognise what the concept is in the context of the instruction, or minimising distraction by ensuring a quiet environment. Therapy with children also often comprises of play therapy using toys or other equipment.
Moreover, speech therapy with children commonly involves some engagement by the parents or primary caregiver to support the child by applying what they learn in therapy into their daily routine. For instance, parents are often encouraged by therapists to build the child’s vocabulary by naming objects with the child during activities, or looking at picture books to promote the child to describe what is happening in the story/picture, and anticipate what might happen next.


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