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Understanding of Language

Hello all!

In today’s post I will touch on the basics of the development of a child’s understanding of language. Understanding of language, also known as receptive language, can be broken down into different areas:


  • Learning new words and what they mean
  • Knowing how new words link to other known words. For example, we can learn the word leaf and link it to ‘tree’ that we already know by working out that they go together because leaves grow on trees.

Understanding words is only part of comprehending language we also need to be able to understand at a ’more than words’ level.

More than words:

  • Grammar, word order, and sentence structure (e.g., questions, explanations, etc.)
    • We need to be able to understand how words fit together to make a sentence that means something and how when those words or the order of the words are changed so can the meaning, e.g. ‘The girl is running’, ‘Is the girl running?’ or ‘have a drink before you go outside’ vs ‘go outside before you have a drink’.

The following is a simplified summary of what one could expect an English speaking child to understand at different stages of their development:

0-1 yr: Non-verbal (e.g. Facial expression, tone of voice and gesture). Understands some spoken words in familiar contexts.

1 yrs: 1 key-word in a sentence, out of context, e.g. ‘where’s your nose?’

2 yrs: 2 key-words in a sentence, e.g. ‘give the brick to teddy’.

3 yrs: 3 key-words, e.g. Wash teddy’s tummy’. Action words, e.g. ‘sit’, ‘run’, ‘jump’. Describing words, e.g., big/ little. Position words, e.g., in/ on/ under. Simple questions

3-4 yrs: 4 key-words. Pronouns, e.g., I/mine, he/she, simple past/ present/ future tense. More complex questions.

5Yrs: 13,000 words – time/position concepts (before/after/first/second/ days of the week). Reasoning skills developing.

6-7yrs: 20-26,000 words – tells time related to schedule, knows seasons and what happens in each, can identify speech mistakes of others.

Strategies to Support Understanding

Each strategy used alongside spoken language aids and reinforces the understanding of what is being said. Different people prefer information in different modes.  For some, visual information is much more effective than auditory information.  Using both visual and auditory information together complements and helps the other to convey meaning to the listener. 


Using visuals provides information that can be stored in our visual memory which can in turn be used to aid our auditory memory. Visuals can be a powerful mode of communication even when not paired with speech. Using visuals does not always imply using images. Visuals can be:

  • Pointing
  • Gesturing
  • Pictures/objects
  • Visual timetables: A child may not understand written words as of yet, but the pictures (especially as they become more familiar) will be easier to understand and complement the understanding of the language.

Interaction strategies

Providing silence and thinking time for children helps them feel accepted and gives them the opportunity to play and be imaginative without adult leading.

Try to remember OWL: Observe, Wait, Listen – then follow:

Observing will give you the opportunity to become aware of what the child is interested in.

Waiting allows the child the opportunity to lead by beginning to communicate first.

Listening allows you to be aware of the child’s current language level.

Follow the child’s lead.

Questioning Strategies

Questions vary in difficulty from questions about what is in front of you to abstract concepts. The further away from the context of the question being asked, the more difficult it may be to answer based on a child’s level of understanding. If a child is having difficulty answering a question, attempt to ‘step down’ or lower the difficulty of the question. The following is a four-level model (known as Blank’s Model) which demonstrates the levels of questions from concrete to abstract.

Level 1: –Find one like this. – What is this? — Say this ….Show me the -What did you see?

Level 2: Find one that can.. – what is happening? Who/ what/ where? – how are these different?

Level 3: What will happen next? – what could he say? Tell me how to … – do this, then this?

Level 4: What will happen if.. – how can we tell? What will that happen..- what made the ball move?

Environmental Modifications for Home and Daycare

Visual support for Routines

  • Daily (Circle / Lunch etc), Lining up, Seating area on carpet, Coat/bag/lunch/drink places

Labelling the classroom

  • Written words / Symbols / pictures
  • Defined learning/activity areas

Removing distractions

  • If there is distracting noise close the door / windows
  • Not having too many visually distracting items near the carpet area
  • Organized environment to reduce distractions

Supportive Environment

  • Allows seeking help with difficult words
  • Gives specific praise for contributing, asking questions, and other speaking skills
  • Uses of visual supports
  • Has opportunities for talking routines, e.g. greetings and goodbyes, songs, small group routine

Do you find that you use some of these strategies at home? Try to take some time to notice how many support strategies you use in the day to aid your child’s understanding. Perhaps you will be able to see which strategies work best for your child.

As our academic year comes to an end here at Albatross and summer holidays begin, our blog will have a brief hiatus until August. Next time, we will move up the language development pyramid to discuss language expression. Have a lovely summer!

Marissa Perez

Linguistic Specialist

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