Expressive Language 101

What is Expressive Language?

Expressive language is a term used to describe how a person communicates his/her wants and needs with others. This includes both verbal and nonverbal communication skills and how a person uses language. It is first important to determine how a student communicates and then his/her expressive language skill level.

Basic Non-Verbal Communication

A student may communicate with gestures, eye gaze, or purposeful movements to objects or sounds. The student’s level of alertness may be the only means he/she has of communication. For example, the student may open his eyes in response to a noise or touch. The student may use eye gaze or gaze shift to communicate with others. For this the student may look from the communication partner to the desired object and then back to the communication partner to indicate a request. The student may look at the desired item when presented two items. It is important we do not overlook these subtle changes a student uses to communicate with others. A student’s body movement and body proximity can be means of communication. For body movement, the student may pull his/her head back to refuse an item or refuse participation in a task. Body proximity may mean the student leans forward towards an activity to indicate a desire to participate or the student may stand next to the computer center to request a turn at the computer. Facial expressions may include the student smiling to communicate likes or grimacing to express refusal of an item or activity. Gestures may include the student pointing to the computer to request computer time or pointing to a ball to indicate he/she wants to play with the ball. Tantrums are a less than desirable form of communication; however, it’s important we remember tantrums are a form of communication. A student may tantrum to indicate refusal of something or to indicate he/she is done with a task.

Slide1Non-verbal Communication

As we continue to assess the student’s means or way of communication we move from very basic communication intent to more awareness that one item can represent another. Below is a list which can all be considered Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Augmentative and Alternative Communication includes all forms of communication other than oral speech that is used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. Many of our students rely on AAC to supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. For example, the student may use objects to communicate. In this case, the student hands the teacher a paintbrush in order to request art center or an empty cup to request a drink. Other students may use sign language or specific signs to communicate with others. The student may sign “more” to request more of an item or sign “toilet” to communicate he/she needs to use the restroom. Many of our students use a picture communication system which includes the student exchanging a single picture or multiple pictures to communicate. For example, the student may exchange the glue picture to request the glue needed to complete the given task. The student may place multiple pictures on a sentence strip and exchange the sentence strip with the communication partner such as “I want blue crayon” to make a request for the blue crayon. There are also many different types of high tech AAC devices a student may use to communicate with others. For example, the student may press a single switch voice output button such as a Big Mack which says “hi” as he/she greets his/her peers in the morning or the student may have a dynovox and press “hi” and a peer’s name to greet his/her peers. Written words may be another form of communication. For example, a student may write or type a response to a question from the teacher.


Verbal Communication

Now, the form of expressive communication most commonly thought of to others when thinking of expressive language consists of vocalizations, word approximations, or actual verbal speech. The student may vocalize the sound “bbbb” for ball or the student may be able to make a closer approximation of the word such as “ba” for ball. If the student is verbal he/she may produce single words, phrase, or even complete sentences.


Expressive Language Tips

It is also important to remember that many students use a combination of methods in order to express themselves. For example, a student using pictures to communicate may also use some vocalization along with the picture. As the student exchanges the ball picture, he/she may also produce the word or an approximation of the word.

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 milk 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.

Sarah The Speech Helper


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