EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE DISORDER

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). 

Expressive Language Disorder, Brooklyn Letters

One of the ways that children express themselves is through narratives. Acquiring narrative skills is crucial as young children begin to expand their use of language and communication by retelling or describing stories, experiences, or past events. Narrative development is directly correlated with a child’s success in school and academic achievement.

Typically developing children commonly acquire all grammatical morphemes by age four (see chart below). But for children struggling with narrative language, parents may notice some delays or missing aspects in their child’s language skills. At Brooklyn Letters, we work with students who struggle with narrative development.

Read about Early Childhood Developmental Milestones.

Expressive Language Disorder, Brooklyn Letters
Narrative Development in Children
According to research, narrative development can play a significant role in determining a child’s later success in school and literacy. This is because narration and relaying a previous experience allows the child to communicate and use language beyond the present context or the “here and now.” This determines the child’s grasp of linguistic structure and words chosen. But what exactly is narrative development? And how do you know your child’s progress is appropriate for his or her age?
A child’s narrative skills refer to his or her ability to use language in telling or communicating a story. As children develop their narrative skills, they learn to follow the rules of story-telling. This involves sequencing of events, organization, introducing characters, establishing the plot or main idea, and taking perspectives.
Narrative skills are first developed and introduced in very young children through storytelling or bedtime story sessions with their parents.
By listening to stories and being exposed to story-telling, children begin to understand and develop narrative structure. In most cases, children with language impairments or conditions struggle with comprehending and executing narratives. At Brooklyn Letters, we work with children who have narrative language difficulties.
Find out more about the Stages of Narrative Development.
Expressive Language Disorder, Brooklyn Letters
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. 

Expressive Language Disorder, Brooklyn Letters

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:

????????? – 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. 

Semantics - Vocabulary. 

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.

Expressive Language Disorder, Brooklyn Letters

 

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. This evaluation process includes both informal and formal assessments. Formal evaluation comes in the form of standardized tests, while informal evaluation involves interviews, observations, checklists, and language samples.

While both types are essential in providing accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment goals, it is the language sample that provides a clearer picture of the child’s language abilities and conversational skills. Through language sampling, an SLP is able to gain better understanding of the child’s strengths and weaknesses with regards to key language areas. These areas include syntax or grammar, semantics or word meanings, morphology (suffixes and prefixes), and pragmatics or social skills.
Our SLPs at Brooklyn Letters conduct language sampling in order to accurately diagnose and assess the needs of your child using the Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts or SALT program. The typical expressive language development in young children, aged 12 months to 47 months onwards, is outlined in the Acquisition of Sentence Forms Within Brown’s Stages of Development. This framework is an invaluable tool used by SLPs in conducting a structural analysis of a language sample.
(Related: Find out more about language sampling in this article on the Structural Analysis of a Language Sample.)
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)