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Receptive language difficulties

Children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) may have difficulties understanding spoken and written language. It’s often hidden and sometimes harder to identify than a difficulty with talking, but it is important to recognise as it affects a child’s learning and development.

What do children struggle to understand?

A face looking confused with a question mark

Lots of different aspects of language can be affected and this can change over time as your child gets older.


Understanding the meaning of words is called ‘receptive vocabulary’. Children need to understand lots of words. Young children may struggle to find objects or follow simple instructions. Older children may struggle to understand and learn new words. Words for emotions are hard to understand. More detailed or complicated ‘big words’ may be hard to understand.


Children may struggle to understand the grammar and word order which affects the meaning of a sentence, for example, ‘The boy who is chasing the dog is dirty’. Who is dirty? Children may struggle to understand the different meanings of questions words, for example, where, why, how.


Children with DLD can find it hard to learn the meanings of all new words but abstract concepts and words for time such as ‘tomorrow’ ‘next week’ are very tricky.


Difficulties with ‘reading between the lines’. Children with DLD may struggle to ‘get the gist’ as they have difficulties building a picture in their head, or combining information from a few sentences in a story.


For example, ‘you’re full of beans’ and ‘pull your socks up’. These can be confusing for children with DLD. They may also struggle with jokes.

Lots of verbal information

Children with DLD struggle with the amount and speed of lots of spoken information such as complex and longer instructions, explanations, teaching, stories, conversations and banter with peers. There’s ‘too much’ information or its ‘too fast’ or both. They struggle to process and ‘catch’ all the words spoken and they may switch off and become fidgety. They may also struggle with remembering what they have been told.

Sometimes children with DLD don’t realise that they don’t understand so they don’t ask for help.

What signs may a child or young person with receptive language difficulties show?

one person helping another

Children and young people may:

  • Have difficulty following instructions and might not do what they have been told
  • Look like they are ignoring you
  • Have difficulty understanding explanations and this might mean that they don’t cope well with changes to routines or going to new places
  • Look confused
  • Show behaviour difficulties
  • Struggle to answer questions
  • Copy what other people have said
  • Follow and copy other people or watch to see what’s happening
  • Say that they understand but then do the wrong thing. They may not ask for help.
  • Switch off, daydream, fidget, not listen.
  • Get anxious or frustrated
  • Not talk as much as they can’t follow the conversation
  • Struggle with friendships
  • Older children may have difficulties reading and understanding what they have read.

Receptive language difficulties can affect every child differently and its impact may change as they get older.

How will receptive language difficulties affect a child?

a face looking confused with a question mark

Receptive language difficulties may affect:

  • Learning as they struggle to learn through spoken and written language
  • Reading and writing
  • Participation in spoken activities and discussion
  • Confidence and self esteem
  • Friendships
  • Behaviour

Receptive language difficulties usually persist as part of a DLD. It is part of a long term condition so children don’t just grow out of it. However, with the right help and everyone working together, children can make progress.

How can I support a child with weak receptive language at home?

face with finger pointing up

Visual Support

Children with receptive difficulties as part of their DLD usually learn and understand better through visual and or practical methods, rather than verbal methods. We call this visual support.

  • Use objects, gestures and pointing when giving short instructions
  • Use objects as props when telling a story
  • Give a demonstration as well as an explanation
  • Use photos, drawings, pictures to show what’s happening to your child and to help explain things
  • Use objects, pictures, photos and symbols to help them learn new words for their learning at school
  • Use symbols and drawings to explain the sequence of events e.g. timetables, calendars, sequencing strips

Anything that a child can see to support the language that they hear, will support their understanding.

Other strategies to try

  • Give time, speak more slowly, pause between instructions, and give time for them to respond as this will help them process the information.
  • Simplify the words you use. Say it simply and repeat if needed.
  • Help them learn new words at home before they are used in the classroom. Do practical activities, go on visits, look at books or the internet together.
  • Use symbol mats with key vocabulary, words for topics and stories.
  • Make time to share feelings. Make time for talking and listening to them when they are cross or sad. Use pictures to help them as you talk.
  • Give lots of praise and encouragement to boost self esteem.
  • Support your child with friendships.

Additional resources and information

Lily Farrington’s Developmental Language Disorder Animation

Lily, a young woman with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) explains what it is like to live with this condition.

Time: 2 minutes

Full DLD resource library directory: resources for children and young people with DLD and their families.

Contact us

For more information please contact the Speech and Language Therapy Service at Flockton House on 0114 226 2333.

Is something missing from this resource that you think should be included? Please let us know

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: SL201

Resource Type: Article

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