September 17, 2018

Child Speech Therapy: Expressive Language Skills

Hearing your child’s voice for the first time is an exciting, monumental part of parenthood. As the first babbles turn into words, and eventually sentences, your child’s expressive language is developing. Receptive language is the ability to understand language, as expressive language is the ability to use words, sentences, gestures, and writing to communicate with others.

What is expressive language and why is it important?

Expressive language allows a person to communicate wants, needs, thoughts and opinions. Expressive language is the ability to request objects, make choices, ask questions, answer, and describe events. Speaking, gesturing (waving, pointing), writing (texting, emailing), facial expressions (crying, smiling), and vocalizations (crying, yelling) are all variations of expressive language. Children with poor expressive language skills may become frustrated when they cannot communicate their wants and needs. Temper tantrums may occur when they feel tired, sick or hungry and cannot express their current needs.

How do expressive language skills develop?

Expressive language is developed within the first few days after birth. Babies learn to communicate when they are hungry, uncomfortable or tired through crying and facial expressions. They learn to laugh when they are enjoying an interaction with a parent or caregiver, and smile when they are happy. These are all forms of communication. In order for expressive language skills to develop, a child also needs to have strong receptive language, attention, play, social pragmatics and motivation.

  • Receptive language skills is the comprehension of language which is an underlying skill to label objects, answer questions appropriately, and use language in the intended way.
  • Adequate attention skills is an underlying skill for all developmental tasks. The ability to sustain attention is important in order to finish one’s thought and effectively communicate to others.
  • Play skills encourage children to explore their surroundings. Play can be an intrinsic motivator for young children to communicate by requesting, interacting, and labeling toys.
  • Pragmatic skills is the way language is used day to day in social situations. Adequate pragmatic skills allows a person to participate in conversation appropriately.

Expressive Language Milestones & Activities:

The following, outlines expressive language milestones from birth to 7 years old in three categories: birth, preschool, and school age. Learn about the typical developmental stages as well as activities to try at home.

Birth- 3 years old

0-1 years old:

  • Produces pleasure sounds (cooing and gooing)
  • Makes noises when talked to
  • Protests or rejects through gestures or vocalizations
  • Cries differently for different intentions
  • Attempts to imitate facial expressions and movements of caregivers
  • Laughs during parent interaction
  • Between 7-12 months, child will start to babble sounds together (mama, dada)
  • Uses a representational gesture (such as waves bye-bye, claps hands, moves body)

Activities to Try at Home:

  • Talk to your child. When your child is developing language, they learn through role models. Talk to your child about your day, what you are doing, and what they can see. It may feel strange at first to talk to your baby without them responding, but the more you talk, the more they learn.
  • Read. It is never too early to start reading books to your child. Point out familiar pictures in the books. If you are reading about animals, make the animal sounds associated with each animal.
  • Imitate. Imitate all sounds, gestures, and facial expressions your child makes. Repeat a noise they make, and wait for a response. Encouraging imitation can help your child participate in social turn-taking and start to imitate your words.

1-2 years old

  • First words develop around 12 -14 months (hi, mama, dad)
  • Takes turns vocalizing with another person
  • Uses at least two different consonant sounds (early signs include p, b, t, d, m)
  • Around 18-24 months, child begins putting 2 words together (“more cookie,” “no book,” “all done”)
  • Uses one-to-two word questions such as  “go bye bye?” or “where mommy?”
  • Uses a variety of nouns (e.g. mom, dog) and verbs (e.g. eat, sleep)

Activities to Try at Home

2-3 years old

  • Participates in play with another person for 1 minute while using appropriate eye contact
  • Repeats words spoken by others
  • Has a word for almost everything
  • Speaks in two-three word sentences
  • Asks what or where questions (e.g. “what’s that?”)
  • Ask yes and no questions
  • Will add “no” in front of verbs to refuse activities (e.g. “no go”)
  • Imitates turn-taking in games or social routines

Activities to Try at Home:

  • Games. Simple turn-taking games help children learn how to wait and take turns which is a necessary skill in conversations. Fun toddler games include Let’s Go Fishin’, Seek-a-boo, and Hi Ho Cherry-O.
  • Expand sentences. Imitate your child’s speech and add on extra words to make it grammatically correct. For instance, if you child says “more juice”, you can repeat “I want more juice”.


3-4 years old

  • Names objects in photographs
  • Uses words for a variety of reasons (requests, labels, repetition, help, answers yes/no, attention)
  • Around 3 years, child combines 3-4 words in speech
  • Answers simple who, what, and where questions
  • Uses about 4 sentences at a time
  • Child’s speech can be understood by most adults
  • Asks how, why, and when questions

Activities to Try at Home

  • Yes/no game. Make a game out of yes/no questions by asking your child funny questions such as “Is your name Bob?”, “Can you eat dirt?”, “Do you like ice cream?” Then have your child make up silly questions to try to trick you!
  • Ask questions. While running errands, ask your child questions about the community. For instance, “where do we buy food?”, “who helps you when you are sick?”, or “what do you do if it’s raining?”

4-5 years old

  • When given a description, child can name the described object. For example, “What is round and bounces?”
  • Answers questions logically. For example, “what do you do if you are tired?”
  • Uses possessives (the girl’s, the boy’s)
  • Tells a short story
  • Keeps a conversation going
  • Talks in different ways depending on the place or listener

Activities to Try at Home

  • I-spy. Describe common objects around the house by giving descriptive clues such as what it looks like, what you do with it, where you would find it, etc. Have your child guess what you are talking about! Include objects out of sight to encourage your child to determine objects on their own, and then have them go on a scavenger hunt to find it.
  • Make up stories. Build a blanket fort, grab a flashlight, and create fairy tale stories. Toys may be used as prompts to help make up a story. Incorporate each part of a story including setting, characters, beginning, middle, and end.

School age

5-6 years old

  • Child can tell you what object is and what it’s used for
  • Answers questions about hypothetical events. For example, “What do you do if you get lost?”
  • Uses prepositions (in, on, under, next to, in front of) in sentences
  • Uses the possessives pronouns her and his
  • Names categories of objects such as food, transportation, animals, clothing, and furniture
  • Asks grammatically correct questions
  • Completes analogies. For instance, you sleep in a bed, you sit on a chair
  • Uses qualitative concepts short and long

Activities to Try at Home

  • Category games. Name 5, Scattergories, and Hedbanz are fun and engaging games to work on naming categories.
  • Simon says. Play a game of simon says using prepositions. For instance, Simon says put the book on the table. Once your child is familiar with the game, have them be Simon and give directions using prepositions.

6-7 years old

  • Child is able to names letters
  • Answers why questions with a reason
  • Able to rhymes words
  • Repeats longer sentences
  • Able to retell a story
  • Describes similarities between two objects

Activities at Home

  • Read rhyming books. Dr. Seuss books are great to teach rhyming. Read a page and have your child identify the words that rhyme.
  • Movies. After watching a movie, have your child summarize the plot. Guide your child by breaking it up into beginning, middle, and end.

If you feel your child is developmentally delayed in his or her expressive language skills, contact Lumiere Children’s Therapy for a speech-language evaluation. Our speech therapists can formally assess your child’s expressive language skills, create age-appropriate goals, and develop a therapeutic program unique to your child’s needs.


“Baby Talk: Communicating With Your Baby.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/baby-talk#2.

Expressive Language (Using Words and Language). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/using-speech/expressive-language-using-words-and-language/

“How to Support Your Child’s Communication Skills.” ZERO TO THREE, www.zerotothree.org/resources/302-how-to-support-your-child-s-communication-skills.

Mattingly, R. (2018, September 13). Typical Development. Lecture presented in University of Louisville, Louisville.

Zimmerman, Irla Lee., et al. PLS-5 Preschool Language Scales: Fifth Edition. NCS Pearson, 2011.

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