Understanding expressive language disorder in children

By The Understood Team

Expressive language disorder makes it hard for kids to express their thoughts and ideas. Kids understand what other people are saying, but they have trouble using language when they speak. That can have a big impact on their ability to make friends, socialize, and interact with other people.

It can also affect them at school. Expressive language disorder can make it harder for kids to join classroom discussions or even write what they know. But with the right support, they can improve skills and build self-esteem.

You may not know yet if your child has this lifelong language disorder. But the more you understand the challenges, the better you can support your child.

Signs of expressive language disorder

Expressive language disorder is developmental, so it starts in childhood. The first thing most parents notice is that their child is late to talk or still speaks in single words as a toddler. But signs continue throughout childhood, and you may not recognize them at first.

If your child often uses the wrong word or says sentences that don’t make sense, you might suspect a problem with language. But some signs of expressive language disorder aren’t that clear. You may see behaviors that don’t seem directly related to language, or that could be a sign of many things.

Here are some common signs of expressive language disorder in kids.

  • Starting to talk later than most kids
  • Frequently saying “um” and “huh”
  • Having a limited vocabulary compared to kids the same age
  • Using short phrases or sentences
  • Not talking much, but understanding what’s said
  • Having trouble finding the right words
  • Using certain phrases over and over
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Not making or joining conversations
  • Seeming withdrawn or not interested

It’s frustrating to not be able to communicate what you’re thinking. That’s why some kids with expressive language disorder avoid talking altogether. This can have a big impact on self-esteem, which might be why some kids withdraw.

Finding out if your child has expressive language disorder

The people who diagnose expressive language disorder are speech-language pathologists (SLPs). They’re also known as speech-language therapists.

Your child can get a language evaluation for free at school. It’s often done as part of a full evaluation that looks at a wide range of learning skills.

Many kids who struggle with using language also have trouble understanding it. The combination is called mixed expressive-receptive language disorder. (Learn about receptive language disorder in children.)

Some SLPs work outside of school and do private language evaluations. Your child’s doctor may be able to give you a referral. These evaluations aren’t free. But colleges that train SLPs sometimes offer low-cost or free evaluations.

In the evaluation, the SLP will try strategies that might help your child build skills. The specialist may also interview you to get a better idea of what your child’s challenges look like at home.

How professionals can help with expressive language disorder

The main treatment for language disorders is speech-language therapy. The earlier kids start, the better. Kids get therapy at school as part of a special education plan called an IEP.

SLPs at schools work with kids one-on-one or in a small group of kids with similar challenges. They use strategies and activities that meet kids’ needs and interests. Kids with language challenges can also benefit from social skills groups.

How you can help with expressive language disorder

There are many fun ways you can help your child work on communication and conversation skills. You can read picture books together and name objects. Or name objects as you’re driving or walking.

Talk about characters in books or on TV and the plots. Ask your child to explain what happened in a movie you just watched. You can keep it simple—"What were the three most exciting parts?"

Role-playing is another great way to build conversation skills. Act out a situation and switch parts midway. Or have your child play a news reporter doing an interview or a sportscaster describing a game.

If your child says something that doesn’t make sense, or uses the wrong word, you can playfully point it out and ask your child to say it a different way.

It’s important to help your child improve language skills. But it’s just as important to help your child build self-esteem.

Struggling to get their thoughts out can make kids feel frustrated and ashamed. And even though it’s not a problem with intelligence, trouble using language can make them feel like they’re not smart.

Tell your child that everyone struggles with something, and that’s OK. Explain that with work, language skills can improve, and that you’ll be there to help. And be sure to celebrate successes large and small.

Download growth mindset worksheets to help your child stay motivated.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Kelli Johnson, MA is an educational speech-language pathologist, working with students from early childhood through 12th grade.