The Sequence of Acquisition of Expressive Language Skills

Instructor: Kristen Goode

Kristen has been an educator for 25+ years - as a classroom teacher, a school administrator, and a university instructor. She holds a doctorate in Education Leadership.

The ability to communicate with the world around us using expressive language is an important skill. In this lesson, we will investigate the natural sequence by which expressive language skills are developed.

Learning to Communicate

Three-month-old Lance has just woken up hungry from a nap. He needs to express his need to his mother. What does he do? He begins to cry. Lance's cries are a form of communication, using expressive language to communicate.

Expressive Language

Expressive language is the process of communicating through spoken words, written words, and even gestures. It is the use of language for the purpose of communication. Expressive language does not always have to involve words. As with Lance, a baby's cry or even a facial expression can display as much meaning as any spoken or written word.

Expressive language can be considered the opposite of receptive language, which is the ability to pull meaning from spoken or written language. Expressive language is the giving of meaning through language, whereas receptive language is the receiving and understanding of the information.

Crying can be expressive language.

Sequence of Acquisition

While children will develop expressive language skills at their own rate, most do follow a natural sequence of acquisition. From birth through school age, developmental milestones generally appear as follows:

Speaking and Gesturing

  • Birth to 3 months
    • Learns to show emotion through smiles
    • Coos and makes pleasure-related sounds
    • Cries to show need or displeasure
    • Develops different cries to signal different needs or emotions
  • 3 to 6 months
    • Begins to babble using mostly consonant sounds
    • Laughs to show pleasure or excitement
    • Makes and holds eye contact
  • 6 to 12 months
    • Babbles by putting strings of sounds together
    • Can imitate sounds and some spoken words
    • Will start using one and two word responses
    • Communicates with hand gestures such as waving or lifting arms in order to be picked up
  • 1 to 2 years
    • Learns a full vocabulary of approximately 200 words or more
    • Starts to ask questions, often involving the word 'why'
    • Uses a rising intonation when asking questions
    • Can pair gestures with words
    • Can put two to three words together to form a sentence or question
    • Able to make most consonant sounds, especially at the beginning of words
    • Uses social words such as 'bye bye' and 'hi'
  • 2 to 3 years
    • Develops a full vocabulary of approximately 1000 words
    • Asks well-developed questions (still with only a few words)
    • Puts small sentences together
    • Speech is easily understood by family members and others who are close
    • Self-corrects when developing sentences for speech
    • May stutter on some sounds or words
  • 3 to 4 years
    • Vocabulary reaches approximately 1600 words
    • Begins using verbs and verb tenses correctly
    • Begins using pronouns and plurals
    • Can say rhyming words
    • Answers simple questions with simple sentences
    • Asks questions with more detail; appropriately uses who, what, when, why, where, and how
  • 4 to 6 years
    • Has a vocabulary of close to 3000 words by age 6
    • Uses sentences and questions with correct grammatical structure
    • Able to make all consonant and vowel sounds (though some may still be developing l, r, and the h-blends)
    • Tells stories
    • Able to carry on a conversation
    • Can name letters and numbers
    • Learns to use threats, promises, and even lies
    • Asks questions to legitimately seek information
    • Understands and purposefully uses nonverbal forms of communication (facial expressions, gestures, etc)
    • Speech is generally understood by all people

Talking on the phone is expressive language.
expressive language


  • 1 to 2 years
    • Can generally hold a pencil in a grip-like fashion
    • Attempts to write using scribbles
  • 2 to 3 years
    • Understands directionality in writing
    • Scribbles begin to take on different (sometimes identifiable) shapes
  • 3 to 4 years
    • Scribbles begin to represent things and hold meaning to the child
    • Can copy letters, numbers, basic pictures
    • May be able to write own name
  • 4 to 6 years
    • Holds a pencil correctly
    • Able to spell and write age-appropriate words
    • Begins to put simple sentences together in writing
    • Understands that spaces are necessary between words when writing

Writing is a form of expressive language.

Problems to Look For

It is not uncommon for some children to run into problems meeting milestones in their development of expressive language skills. When problems occur, the sequence might be disrupted or halted altogether. There are several signs and symptoms to look for if concerns exist about a child's expected acquisition of expressive language skills.

Preschool to early grade school

  • Difficulty in making certain sounds (usually consonant sounds)
  • Uses made up words
  • Speech is not understood by others
  • Strings words together to form incoherent sentences
  • Trouble naming objects

First grade on through elementary school

  • Has a hard time finding words when speaking
  • Shies away from conversation
  • Difficulty telling or retelling stories
  • Difficulty putting thoughts together in writing

A child with expressive language difficulties might also struggle in other areas:

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