Early Childhood Intervention: Module Two – Special Needs & Conditions

Category — 2.8 Children with Communication Disorders: Receptive Language Difficulties

Children with Receptive Language Difficulties


A child has a receptive language disorder when he or she has difficulties with understanding what is said to them. Symptoms vary but problems with language comprehension usually begin before the age of 4 years. It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of children have a receptive or expressive language disorder, or a mixture of both. This means that he or she finds it hard to do something with what he or she hears1. Other names for receptive language disorder include central auditory processing disorder or CAPD (see full Glossary) and comprehension deficit (see full Glossary).

Signs a child may have receptive language difficulties:

  • Not seeming to listen when spoken to;
  • Lack of interest when story books are read to him or her;
  • Inability to understand complicated sentences;
  • Inability to follow verbal instructions;
  • Parroting words or phrases (echolalia);
  • Language skills below the expected level for their age.

Understanding spoken language is a complicated process. The child may have problems with one or more of the following skills:

  • Hearing: A hearing loss can be the cause of language problems.
  • Vision:  Understanding language involves visual cues, such as facial expression and gestures. A child with vision loss won’t have these additional cues, and may experience language problems.
  • Attention: The child’s ability to pay attention and concentrate on what’s being said may be impaired.
  • Speech sounds: There may be problems distinguishing between similar speech sounds.
  • Memory: The brain has to remember all the words in a sentence in order to make sense of what has been said. The child may have difficulties with remembering the string of sounds that make up a sentence.
  • Word and grammar knowledge: The child may not understand the meaning of words or sentence structure.
  • Word processing: The child may have problems with processing or understanding what has been said to them.

In order to determine if a receptive language difficulty exists, the following assessments might be made:

  • Hearing tests by an audiologist to make sure the language problems aren’t caused by hearing loss and to determine if the child is able to pay attention to sound and language (auditory processing assessment).
  • Testing the child’s comprehension (by a speech pathologist) and comparing the results to the expected skill level for the child’s age.
  • Close observation of the child in a variety of different settings while he or she interacts with a range of people.
  • Assessment by a neuropsychologist to help identify any cognitive problems.
  • Vision tests to check for vision loss.

Intervention Options

  • Speech-language therapy;
  • One-on-one therapy and group therapy, depending on the child;
  • Special education classes at school;
  • Integration support (see full Glossary) at preschool or school in cases of severe difficulty;
  • Referral to a mental health service for treatment (if there are also significant behavioral problems).

To learn about receptive language disorders in the middle childhood years, please visit the six to 12 part of this course.

1 According to Katz, Stecker and Henderson (1992).

January 25, 2011   No Comments