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Receptive Language Disorder

What Is Receptive Language Disorder?

Receptive language disorder is a type of communication disorder. People who have it often don’t understand what others say. They struggle with the meaning of language and may respond in ways that don’t make sense. But their challenges aren’t related to hearing loss or intelligence.

People with receptive language disorder struggle to understand words and connect them with ideas. So they don’t always “get” the meaning of what others are saying. That can make it hard to connect with people, whether it’s at school, at work, or in the community. And it can cause people to withdraw socially.

People with receptive language may also have trouble organizing their thoughts. That can happen with both speaking and writing.

Receptive language disorder isn’t caused by hearing issues. It’s also not the result of speaking other languages. But those are situations that can also make it hard to understand the meaning of what people say.

It’s important to know that language disorders aren’t a matter of intelligence. People who have them are just as smart as other people. But difficulties with language can sometimes keep people from showing their full intelligence. And that can be very frustrating and upsetting.

Receptive Language Disorder Signs and Symptoms

Language disorders are usually developmental. They start in early childhood. Kids can show signs of receptive language disorder as early as Pre-K. (People can also get these disorders later in life after a brain injury or illness. This is known as aphasia.) 

Here are some common signs of receptive language disorder

  • Tuning out when people talk
  • Trouble following directions
  • Trouble answering questions
  • Interrupting people who are speaking
  • Asking people to repeat what they say
  • Giving answers that are “off”
  • Misunderstanding what’s said
  • Not getting jokes
  • Trouble understanding and learning new vocabulary

People with a receptive language disorder can also come across as withdrawn or shy. They may not respond when people speak to them because they didn’t understand what was said. Or they didn’t tune in to it, to begin with.

Here are some signs of receptive language disorder at various ages.


  • Doesn’t seem to be listening
  • Has trouble following directions
  • Has trouble identifying objects

Grades K–2

  • Has trouble answering questions
  • Waits to see what other kids do before acting
  • Has trouble focusing when someone is talking, especially when there’s background noise
  • Only does half of a task

Grades 3–5

  • Seems to be listening, but then doesn’t act
  • Gives responses that are “off” (not related to the conversation) or that aren’t very specific
  • Interrupts people who are speaking
  • Often asks people to repeat themselves
  • Has a more limited vocabulary than other kids

Tweens and teens

  • Has a hard time following group conversations
  • Rarely asks questions or makes comments during conversation or class discussions
  • Remembers details, but doesn’t get the bigger context
  • Misunderstands what’s been said
  • Doesn’t understand jokes or takes things literally
  • Seems uninterested in conversation
  • Avoids joining afterschool activities


  • Doesn’t understand language used at work
  • Has trouble keeping up with what people say in meetings
  • Has a hard time answering questions in meetings
  • Doesn’t respond when people say something
  • Seems shy or withdrawn
  • Avoids social gatherings
  • Misinterprets conversation and takes things the wrong way

Struggling with receptive language can make kids and adults feel isolated. But there are ways to improve these skills.

Using visual cues and written organizers can help kids understand spoken information in class. Social skills groups and role-playing can help kids interact. And using email and text can help teens and adults who struggle with following verbal information.

Possible Causes of Receptive Language Disorder

There’s no one cause of receptive language disorder. And many times, there’s no known reason for these challenges. But in some cases, they may be related to certain conditions and situations. These include autism, birth defects, or problems in pregnancy or birth. And later in life, they can be caused by brain injury or illness.

How Receptive Language Disorder Is Diagnosed

To get a diagnosis, you need to be evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. These specialists may work in schools, clinics, or private practice.

Receptive language disorder can be diagnosed at any age. But the sooner it’s identified, the better.

Understanding Receptive Language Disorder in Your Child

Receptive language disorder makes it hard to understand what people say. But with the right support, skills can improve. The more you understand the challenges, the better you can support your child.

You may not yet know if your child has a receptive language disorder. But this overview can help answer basic questions you may have. It can also lead you to more in-depth information.

How You Can Help With Receptive Language Disorder

There are many simple ways you can help your child improve language skills.

  • Read picture books together and label the items you see. Talk about what the characters are doing.
  • Play games with simple, predictable directions, like Simon Says.
  • Play together, with toys your child chooses. Ask questions and make comments that relate to what you’re doing.
  • Practice looking at the speaker and resisting interrupting. 
  • Let your child know it’s OK to ask people to repeat themselves.

If your child is getting speech therapy, ask the SLP for suggestions for what you can do at home. 

It’s important to help your child build language skills. But you’re also the best person to help your child build self-esteem. Kids who struggle can easily lose confidence and stop trying. And with language disorders, in particular, they can feel isolated and withdraw. 

Tell your child that everyone has challenges—and strengths. Celebrate successes big and small. Let your child know that language skills can improve with work and that you’re there to help.

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