Storytime and Child Development: Receptive Language




I’m starting off the new year today with a new post in my child development series. Last time, I wrote about how depth perception develops between four and eight months. (Using Donkey Kong as an example. You’re welcome.) This time, I’m talking about the development of receptive language.

Receptive language is the ability to listen to and comprehend words. It’s different from expressive language, which develops several months later, because expressive language allows you to respond to what you hear verbally. It’s carrying on a conversation instead of just understanding one.

A lot of us can probably say that we understand Spanish, but find it much more difficult to speak. That means our receptive language is in check, but expressive language is still lagging. Understanding the effort it takes to jump from understanding a foreign language to speaking it helps us understand how much work a baby’s brain is doing when learning to put together sounds and words appropriate for a situation. (And they’re doing it without any other background knowledge of how language works. They’re such geniuses!)

When children start developing receptive language, they’ll often begin by recognizing their names. They’ll turn to look at you when you say it or light up when it’s time for their name be sung in storytime. They’ll also quickly learn “no,”  and respond by stopping what they’re doing…maybe. (Later, that’s one of the first words they master in speaking. Woohoo!)

Soon, they’ll start understanding all the simple commands that we often repeat to infants. Wave bye-bye! Put it down. Blow a kiss! Come over here. Look at this!

At first, babies are guessing the right responses, but the more they receive positive feedback for guessing or remembering the right response, the better able they are to build on that success. As they continue to learn and grow, they’ll go from putting down a toy to putting it back in a toy box to sorting their toys.

There’s a couple things I do in every baby storytime that build on receptive language.

First, we start off each storytime by introducing all the babies with a song. I use “Let’s all clap,” which is twice as awesome because as babies get a little older, they start clapping along with me! This song lets us call out each baby by name, and the way they smile when they hear their names…ugh, it just melts your heart.

Second, I wrap up each storytime by doing a version of “Wave Goodbye Like This.” (It’s about halfway through this video.) You may remember, I was baby impaired when I started this storytime, so I didn’t know what common behaviors babies know at first. Through some observing, I noticed they almost all knew how or were encouraged to wave goodbye. Lots of them also knew how to blow a kiss. So my lyrics go like this:

We wave goodbye like this
We wave goodbye like this
We wave goodbye, but we won’t cry
We wave goodbye like this

We blow a little kiss *mwah*
We blow a little kiss *mwah*
We blow a kiss and we won’t miss
We blow a little kiss *mwah*

And then we clap and cheer and bring out toys for playtime.

I hope this gives you some ideas for reinforcing those receptive language skills in storytime!

Here are a couple milestone charts that may help you learn more about infant language development. If you’re interested in a deeper understanding, keep in mind that it’s mostly speech pathologists who are in the conversation at this age and that the emphasis tends to be on identifying and correcting hearing problems. You can find studies on infants and receptive language, but they’re generally much more intensive than what I’m sharing here. Anyway, here you go:

Birth-One Year Old Chart from American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Another milestone checklist with a little more description of the terms in child development.



2 thoughts on “Storytime and Child Development: Receptive Language

  1. This is so awesome! Receptive vs expressive vocabulary is sometimes a difficult thing to grasp (and assess!) I love example of a foreign language.

    When I got my cat as a kitten, I found out that apparently cats have the potential receptive vocabulary of an 18 month old child. A dangerous fact for a then-underemployed literacy specialist 🙂 Now he is way too smart for his own good and never shuts up, always wanting in on the conversation.

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