Even before children learn to talk, they understand a lot more than what they can speak. As they continue to develop their communication and language skills, they begin to put their thoughts and feelings into words. But in some cases, a child may find it difficult to find the words to express themselves and have trouble speaking with others. If a child is having significant expressive language issues compared to peers, this is known as an expressive language disorder (also known as spoken language disorder) or an expressive language delay (for children 4 years and younger). 


What is an Expressive Language Disorder?

Unlike speech sound disorders, which involve difficulties in producing spoken sounds, language disorders refer to problems using spoken language compared to peers. These expressive problems manifest in at least one of these areas: spoken vocabulary, complexity of what the child is saying (grammar), and social use of words (pragmatics). These issues become more apparent when children, older than 4 years of age, have difficulties telling stories and making friends. 

Expressive Language Disorder are classified as two types: 

Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder – Difficulty with comprehension or understanding the words or complexity of what the individual understands compared to peers and has an expressive language disorder. 

Expressive Language Disorder – Receptively, the individual is age appropriate but there are significant issues expressing oneself compared to peers. 

There is no such thing as just a receptive language disorder. If a child is misdiagnosed with this label, either the child has significant attentional difficulties or the child’s expressive language skills were not thoroughly assessed. Speech language pathologists are the best professionals to thoroughly assess expressive language skills. 

Spoken or expressive language disorder is a lifelong condition and appears in early childhood. It is often developmental in nature but may also be caused by traumatic brain injury. An individual with expressive language disorder exhibits normal comprehension skills but has difficulty with written and/or verbal expression. This can impair academic achievement and make it more difficult to socialize in groups with peers. 


 Causes of Expressive Language Disorder

The exact cause of expressive language disorder is not entirely known, but it can either be a primary disability or be related to other disorders. Some of the common conditions associated with language disorders are:

  • developmental disorders such as autism
  • brain injury or tumor
  • birth defects (Down syndrome, cerebral palsy)
  • pregnancy or birth problems due to poor nutrition, fetal alcohol syndrome, premature birth, or low birth weight
  • hearing loss caused by ongoing ear infections
  • genetics or family history

But, most of the time, the cause is unknown. 


What Are the Signs of an Expressive Language Disorder?

Depending on the age, linguistic development, and affected language domains, the signs of an expressive language disorder can vary among individuals. In children, these symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways and affect the following language domains:

Phonology – The ability to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language, e.g. rhyming or playing around with sounds. 

Syntax – Another word for grammar.

Morphology – A specific type of grammar dealing with units of words called morphemes. 


Pragmatics – Using appropriate language (including nonverbal communication) in social situations and daily interactions.

In many cases, signs of an expressive language disorder may not be obvious to parents and teachers. Some signs and behaviors may not directly imply a language problem. Children with an expressive language disorder may:

  • have less developed vocabulary than their peers
  • often say fillers like “um,” “uh,” and “huh”
  • have no problems with understanding, but struggle with speaking, asking questions, or answering
  • use short phrases or sentences or say the same words or phrases over and over;
  • struggle with telling stories
  • for toddlers, relies on using gestures
  • lack intonation and modulation when talking
  • shy away from conversation and avoid social situations or group interactions
  • may say a lot but not make much sense

Because expressing thoughts, feelings, and ideas is a huge struggle for children with an expressive language disorder, this may further lead to problems with their self-esteem and confidence. At school, it can be challenging for children to connect with teachers and classmates. They may also find it difficult to participate in class discussions, answer questions, or do written work.


Diagnosing Expressive Language Disorder

As with all speech or language disorders, it is always important to first ensure that there are no hearing issues affecting language development. A hearing assessment by an audiologist is necessary to rule out any issues with hearing (ears). Even undetected ear infections can interfere with acquiring language in younger children. 

To get your child diagnosed with an expressive language disorder, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) must do a thorough evaluation. A comprehensive assessment must be conducted with the help of the child’s family and teachers. 

During this phase, speech language pathologists will need to know the child’s:

  • full case history (including birth and medical records; history of language, speech, reading, or academic difficulties in the family; languages or dialects spoken at home; and, the family’s and teacher’s own observations and concerns)
  • spoken language skills (phonology and phonological awareness, semantics, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics)
  • level of reading and writing (if the child is school age) 


How to Treat Expressive Language Disorder

Once a diagnosis is made, the SLP will conduct further analysis and observations before creating an individualized program. However, it is important to remember that therapy will not offer a permanent “cure” for the disorder. Instead, SLPs can equip children with strategies and techniques to help them manage their condition. 

Therapy methods can vary, depending on the therapist and the child’s needs. Modeling target behavior is one technique where the therapist models and reinforces aspects of speech that need to be targeted, such as sounds, vocabulary, and grammatical structure.

Some areas that SLPs address are:

For preschoolers (ages 3 to 5):

  • enhancing phonological awareness through rhyming, blending, and segmenting spoken words
  • improving vocabulary and understanding of semantic relationships
  • increasing sentence types, length, and complexity
  • improving conversational skills
  • developing narrative skills
  • increasing language flexibility in different contexts
  • building and encouraging literacy skills

For elementary school children (ages 5 to 10)

  • enhancing phonological awareness
  • improving understanding and depth of vocabulary
  • understanding figurative language and ambiguities (words with multiple meanings, ambiguous sentence structures)
  • paraphrasing information and comprehension
  • using more advanced morphology (prefixes, suffixes)
  • formulating more complex sentence structures
  • judging and correcting grammar and morphological errors
  • using language to convey politeness, persuasion, and clarification
  • increasing knowledge and skills on a discourse level
  • making contributions to discussions and repairing conversational breakdowns
  • learning what and what not to say and when and when not to talk


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