Teaching Strategies for Students with Expressive Language Disorders

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Expressive language disorder occurs when a person is unable to express him or herself using spoken language. Students with this disorder have special needs. When you are able to meet their needs, the learning environment is enriched for everyone.

What is Expressive Language Disorder?

Have you ever had one of those moments where you knew what you wanted to say, but you just couldn't find the right word for it? Sure, we've all had moments like that; and we laugh about them. Can you imagine what it would be like if that was what you experienced every time you tried to talk? That is exactly what it is like for someone with expressive language disorder.

Language involves speech. When a person is expressive, he is able to transfer meaning and feeling to another person. Thus, expressive language is the ability to transfer meaning and feeling to others through the use of speech. It stands to reason that a person with expressive language disorder has difficulty expressing themselves in words at an age-appropriate level.

Difficulty expressing themselves in words does not mean that people with expressive language disorder (or difficulties) are intellectually disabled. Their intellectual abilities may be completely age-appropriate while their language skills could be many years delayed. The job of a teacher is to help identify these students with language needs while encouraging and supporting their academic progress as well.

Identifying Possible Expressive Language Disorder

Students who often stammer or speak very slowly may be showing signs of expressive language disorder. A stutter or frequently filling sentences with words like 'um' could indicate the student is working to find the word they want to use. These students may also avoid class discussions due to the difficulty in expressing their thoughts to the class.

Other signs of expressive language disorder are an inability to understand, follow, or tell jokes to their peers. Language patterns such as sarcasm, metaphors, and story-telling seem lost on them.

Behaviorally, you may find that students with this disorder are loners in school. This may be because their difficulty expressing themselves can be frustrating for their peers. As you may expect from a student with few friends at school, you may also notice other behavioral difficulties like aggression, depression, anger, or withdrawal. They may avoid participating in any groups and may be the victims of bullying by peers. These issues commonly stem from their inability to express themselves through traditional language.

Supporting in the Classroom

Three main avenues of support for students with expressive language disorder are through the use of concrete methods in communication, modeling expected language use, and adjusting the behavioral responses to and from the student.

Concrete Methods

For many students with expressive language disorder, finding the word they want is elusive. To help build their vocabulary, you can use concrete items to assist students with their expression. This gives them the ability to use a brain system other than their language centers to communicate with you. Two ideas of concrete support for students are:

  • use of miniature items that the student can pick up to show what they need or want
  • picture boards can allow students to point to what they are trying to say if they are having difficulty coming up with the word

When using these strategies, you would want to give the student the word associated with the item chosen to help connect the word with the item.

Remember that concrete ideas relate to concrete language as well. These students do not understand sarcasm and have difficulty with abstract ideas. When speaking, make sure to maintain simple and concrete language without embellishing your phrases. A statement like 'I wonder if there is a red ball in the picture' is abstract, but a student with expressive language disorder needs much more direct language, like 'point to the red ball in the picture.'


It is good to model language for the student and get them to repeat your words. Imagine the student has come to you, picked up the miniature water fountain on your desk and looked at you expectantly. You might respond with 'May I get some water?', Inviting the student to copy your words for practice with expressing thoughts. This is called modeling and occurs anytime you show by example what you expect from the student. Modeling the appropriate verbal exchange strengthens the student's foundation in language skills.

Modeling is a great technique to use in the classroom.

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