The Sequence of Acquisition of Receptive 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.

Receptive language skills are important as children learn to listen, read, and comprehend information that they take in. This lesson looks at the sequence of acquisition of receptive language skills and discusses strategies for monitoring development.

Listening to Language

Carol is a new mom. She knows that receptive language starts as early as infancy. She wants to be sure she is helping her daughter develop strong receptive language skills. Even infants are listening to and learning from the language they hear.

Receptive Vs. Expressive Language

Receptive language, put simply, is the ability to understand and make sense of information received either through listening or reading. As the word receptive refers to the process of receiving something, it only makes sense that receptive language is all about understanding information that is received. This is opposite of expressive language which is the ability to communicate by putting thoughts into words. A quick and easy way to compare the two would be in using the words input (receptive language) versus output (expressive language).

Receptive language is understanding the language we hear.
receptive language

Sequence of Acquisition

While all children develop differently, the acquisition of receptive language skills tends to follow a certain natural progression. It begins in infancy-- making language related interactions crucial at this stage. Below is a general outline of what is considered to be a normal sequence in the acquisition of receptive language skills.

Acquisition of receptive language skills starts as early as infancy.
receptive language

  • At birth - Infants are aware of the sounds around them. They may startle at loud noises or quiet down when they hear a soothing sound.
  • 0-3 months - Babies at this age distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar voices. They will turn their head and smile in response to familiar voices and sounds.
  • 4-6 months - At this stage, babies become fascinated by the sounds around them. Toys that make noises are especially pleasing. They may also learn to associate meaning with some words, such as 'no'. Children at this stage will also respond to variations in tone or tempo. They respond to sounds using their eyes and basic facial expressions.
  • 7-12 months - By this time, a baby will respond to his/her own name and understand the meaning behind more basic words and simple commands or questions, like ''Put down the ball,'' and ''Do you want more milk?''
  • 1-2 years - Children at this stage should be able to point to the pictures you name when looking at a book or identify basic body parts or small objects. They understand more complex questions and commands and enjoy listening to books and songs. They should also respond to sounds or words, even when the source is not visible. At about 18 months, most children will understand 50-100 words.
  • 2-3 years - At this point, a child should understand the meaning of upwards of 500 words. He/she will easily understand and respond to multi-step commands or questions. Children at this stage are learning to distinguish between pronouns (I, you, me, etc.), and they understand what is expected of them when asked questions that involve the terms who, what, when, why, where, and how.
  • 4-5 years - By this time, children have a good understanding of approximately 10,000 words. They can identify family members and different items around the home. They understand plurals and concepts of time or number and follow multi-step directions. They can also learn from listening, which means a parent can explain something to a child at this age and he will understand what is being said. Children at this stage can listen to a short story and answer questions about it at the end. Some children may be learning to read and are beginning to decipher meaning associated with words and symbols.
  • Early elementary school - As students enter elementary school, they will have a pretty solid grasp on receptive language. Their receptive vocabulary will be near 20,000 words. They will be able to understand and respond appropriately to all types of questions and commands. They will learn through listening and reading and understand the language that is used. Children at this stage should also be able to use expressive language appropriately in response to receptive language.

Receptive language is understanding the language we read.

Problems to Look For

If a child has a delay in the acquisition of receptive language, there will most likely be some signs pointing out the problem. Some things that parents and teachers might look for include:

  • Attention difficulties when spoken language is being used
  • Problems following directions or commands
  • A tendency to ask for things to be repeated multiple times
  • Difficulty in following along with stories
  • Problems with answering questions appropriately

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account