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Expressive language is the way we use words, sentences, signs and gestures to communicate our thoughts, feelings, ideas and needs with others.  

Expressive language often develops after receptive language as children need to be able to understand language before they can use language to communicate themselves.  

What are Expressive Language Skills? 

There are many patterns and rules in language that help us understand each other. Expressive language skills are the way we use these different patterns and rules to help others make sense of what we think and need. For children, the development of these skills can begin with simple gestures such as waving, pointing at an object or using single words to ask for an item they want. 

Expressive language skills include: 

  • Using words and sentences 
  • Making gestures or facial expressions 
  • Asking questions, telling stories and having conversations 
  • Building vocabulary  
  • Labelling objects  
  • Following grammatical rules correctly like sentence structure and verb tense

Developing expressive language skills is so important for children in the early years. These skills allow them to communicate with parents, family members and others in their life, and enable them to interact meaningfully in an early learning environment. Expressive language is particularly important as pre-school aged children prepare for starting school, because these skills help them to participate in classroom discussions, ask for help and make friends. 

Signs of an Expressive Language Difficulty 

Signs that a child may have expressive language difficulties include: 

  • Having trouble with finding the right words  
  • Being unable to express how they feel  
  • Using more limited vocabulary than other children their age 
  • Using simple or incomplete sentences 
  • Difficulty asking questions or explaining an event or story  
  • Having difficulty participating in conversations  
  • Difficulty labelling objects and items 
  • Making frequent grammatical errors such as using the wrong tense or putting words in the wrong order in a sentence  
  • Exhibiting challenging behaviours such as hitting, biting or meltdowns when they are unable to communicate 

It’s important to note that all children will have difficulty in these areas in the early years as they are still learning and developing. Children will build different expressive language skills at different ages.  

Read our article to learn more about speech and language milestones

Strategies to Support Children’s Expressive Language 

There are many simple things you can do day-to-day to support children’s expressive language skills, particularly if they’re having difficulties.  

Talk – a lot  

Whenever you are performing an activity in front of a child, describe the actions you are taking. This will expose children to so many words to help them build their vocabulary.  

Ask different types of questions  

Whenever you’re reading a book, playing or eating with a child, ask them questions about the activity to encourage them to use words to describe what is happening. Start with simple questions that only require one-word responses and build from there.  

Check out our ‘Wh- questions’ article for more information. 

Offer choices  

Providing children with two or more options in activities encourages them to gesture or use words to show you what they want to do.  

Play lots of games 

Games like Guess Who, I Spy and Celebrity Heads encourage children to use descriptive language to find out the correct answer. Puzzles and LEGO® can also encourage children to request the different pieces they need. 

Model good grammar and sentences 

When a child uses the incorrect tense or incomplete sentences, repeat back what the child has said with corrections. For example, if a child says, “I goed to school”, you can repeat back, “I went to school”. You can also use this to help build a child’s vocabulary. If a child says, ‘He was eating’; say ‘Yes, he was eating a vegemite sandwich’. 

Use alternate forms of communication 

Talking is just one way to express our needs. Language can also include the use of gestures, pictures and even technology. If a child has significant difficulties using spoken language, show them how to use simple Key Word Sign or visual aids to communicate.  

Check out our Visual Communication Strategies video for ideas