Identifying your students’ receptive and expressive language levels will help you know how best to meet the needs of your students and create meaningful/functional lessons for your classroom.  Take some time at the beginning of the school year to assess your student’s basic receptive and expressive language skills.  This extra step at the beginning of the year will save time and frustration for both you and your students.  In addition it will give you some great base line data on your students.

Receptive language refers to the ability to understand/comprehend language heard or read.  This is evident with our students in their ability to follow directions and recognize names of familiar people, object, and toys.  Initially a child’s receptive language skills are highly contextualized and he/she may rely on familiar situations and pointing to understand words.  As the child develops more language, less contextual cues are required and the child demonstrates understanding based on words alone.


It is so important to remember students can have stronger receptive language skills than their expressive language skills which is why it is important to assess both areas.


Here are some Receptive language skills to identify what your student can do

  • identify basic objects (i.e. common food items, school supplies, animals, and household items)
  • identify basic concepts (i.e. size, color, shape)
    • “find the big truck” (provide a choice of 3 sizes)
    • “find the green ball” (provide a choice of 3 or more balls)
  • identify prepositional concepts (i.e. under, over, across)
    • “put the ball under the box”
    • “find the ball on the table”
  • follow 1- step routine/familiar commands (zip jacket, clean up)
  • follow 1 or 2 step directions (out of context)
    • “put the blue car under the bridge”
    • “put the dog in the red box”
  • answer “wh” questions either visually or verbally (with picture choice of 3-4 pictures)
    • “what color is the ball?”
    • “where do you sleep?”
    • “who help put out fires?”
  • identify feelings
    • “find sad” (have a picture of 3 or more emotions)


Knowing your student’s ability with these skills can help determine areas to work on with your student and how to communicate with them.  For example, if your student has difficulty understanding basic concepts than you can focus on those concepts in small group and for their work tasks.  If the student has difficulty understand those basic concept than expecting the student to follow direction with those basic concepts would not be realistic or fair.  As the student makes progress with those skills you can increase the complexity of the language you use with that student.

Expressive language refers to how a person communication his/her wants and needs with others.  This includes both verbal and nonverbal communication skills and how a person uses language.  It is really important to remember that even if your student is non-verbal he/she may use other means of communication to express themselves.  Non-verbal does not mean the student has no expressive language skill, it just means the student does not produce functional/intelligible verbal speech.  Students many use pictures, gestures, or other AAC systems as a means of communication.  First, identify what the student’s means of communication is and don’t forget it may be a combination of systems.  For example, the student may have some verbal speech and also use a dynamic AAC system to supplement his verbal output or a student may use pictures and gestures to express themselves.  After identifying the student’s means of communication you can then begin to assess his/her express language level.  Students may be verbal but use jargon or scripted language which does not mean they have high expressive language skills just because he/she is verbal.  For more information about expressive language check out my previous blog Expressive Language 101.


After carefully analyzing how the student is communicating or their means of communication we need to assess the student’s expressive level.  For example, at the single word level the student’s means of communication may be pictures and he/she is using the pictures to communicate at the single word level.  In this situation, the student exchanges the mike picture to request milk.  A student at this level may also verbalize the word “milk”


As the student progresses, he/she may use word combination or phrases.  For example, a student using sign language as a means of communication may sign the combination “more milk” or “milk please” to request milk.  Some student may be at the sentence or conversation level.  Again this includes both verbal communication and non-verbal communication such as pictures, signs, written words, or AAC devices.  It is important to remember that many of our students many not reach the sentence or conversational skill level.


As we continue to further analyze the student’s expressive communication skills we need to look at the semantics or vocabulary the student uses and his/her syntax or sentence structure.  It is important to look at how many words the student understands and uses.  Is his/her speech spontaneous or just repeated words/phrases/sentences?  Is it rote or scripted language?  For example a student who communicates verbally at the single word level may only have 25 different vocabulary words he/she uses; however, he/she understands the meaning these words and uses them appropriately.  Whereas another student who is verbal may primarily use scripted language and have limited spontaneous speech.  Therefore, that student may actually have a more limited vocabulary than it appears because he/she is using words that do not have meaning for that student.  This type of communication is not functional and it is important to determine how much if any of his/her verbalization have intention and meaning for the student.   As we look at the syntactic structure we can look at the students ability to use correct subject-verb agreement, correct grammatical endings on words such a adding ‘s’ to plurals and possessive, or using correct verb endings.  Some of students may have simple and familiar phrases and sentence structures they use; however, this level of syntactical ability may be too complex for many of our students.

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