Language consists of receptive and expressive language. Receptive language is the language that we understand, and expressive language is the language that we produce. Receptive language consists of listening and reading, and expressive language consists of speaking and writing. What someone understands or produces can vary greatly, from different languages (e.g. Spanish and American Sign Language) to different modalities (e.g. AAC systems). In this post, we will cover what receptive language is, and why it is important to understand.

Within language are five domains: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. These domains are present in all languages. Check out our post on the domains of language for a more thorough overview.


Phonology is the study of the smallest units of language that governs how phonemes are used. Phonemes consist of many sounds, such as (but not limited to) /s/, /a/, and /m/. Phonemes are always denoted within brackets like / /, to show that we are talking about the way something sounds. It is important to note that sometimes the letter symbol and the actual sound the phoneme makes do not match up. You can find more information about phonemes and the International Phonetic Alphabet here.

Receptive understanding of phonology is being able to distinguish one sound from another when listening, and understanding that the letter “s” makes the /s/ sound in English. Higher level receptive language skills related to reading is knowing that “g” makes the /g/ sound, “h” makes the /h/ sound, but together, “gh” (e.g., as in the word “dough”) will sound differently.


Morphology is the study of the smallest meaningful units of language, which are called morphemes. For example the phonemes /b/, /ɪ/, and /d/ do not hold significance in English and aren’t considered morphemes, but together, /bɪd/ makes “bid,” which is a word that holds meaning and is a morpheme. /s/ is considered a morpheme because when added to /bɪd/, the meaning is changed, making the word “bids.”

Receptive understanding of morphology when listening to language is understanding how morphemes are used; therefore someone who hears /bɪd/ knows that it is referring to one bid, but /bɪds/ is referring to two or more bids. When reading, someone knows that adding “s” to the end of a word changes its meaning.


Syntax refers to the word order of phrases and sentences. In English, correct syntax indicates that one would say, “I ate a cookie,” not “ate I a cookie.” Receptive understanding of syntax when listening to language is understanding that “I” (the person), ate something: a cookie (the object). Receptive understanding of syntax when reading is reading the sentence “I ate a cookie," and understanding what is occurring.

Semantics refers to one’s knowledge of vocabulary, or words in a language. It is understanding what the word “soccer” or “excited” means. Receptive understanding of semantics when listening to language is understanding what someone means when they say, “excited,” and when reading is it reading the word “excited” and knowing what that means.


Pragmatics is the social use of language, such as within conversational exchanges. It is knowing that when someone says “hello,” they are greeting you, or that when someone says, “what about you?” you are expected to respond to them.

Receptive understanding of pragmatics when listening to language is understanding these exchanges when they are spoken, and when reading it is understanding the author’s or character’s point of view.

It is important to remember that receptive language skills, as with all language skills, develop over time. A typically developing one year old’s knowledge, use, and application of all the domains of language is expected to be different than a five year old’s knowledge.

Receptive language in a natural setting may include how an individual follows directions, understands grammar (syntax) and vocabulary (semantics), categorizes concepts (e.g. animals), and comprehends spoken conversations or text from stories.

If you have concerns about an individual’s receptive language skills, they may be referred to a speech-language pathologist for an evaluation. If you know that their receptive language skills are not adequate for their age, they may receive intervention and have receptive language goals to work on improving some of these skills.

When reading this post, you used your receptive language skills to understand what we wrote! We used our expressive language skills via writing to (hopefully) clearly express this topic.

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