Understanding Language

Understanding (or receptive) language is important to communicate successfully. As understanding develops, a child’s vocabulary grows, and they further develop their understanding of the world around them.  

 All children are different, and they develop skills at their own rate. By 12-18 months, they are typically able to follow some simple words such as ‘drink’, ‘ball’, ‘shoe’ and will be able to point to familiar objects when asked e.g. ‘car’, ‘bottle’.  

 When we talk to young children there are a lot of clues around them that means they do not need to understand every word we say. For example, if you say ‘give me the book’ when you are holding your hand out and looking at the book, the child only needs to be able to understand the context of the situation in order to be able to pick up the book and give it to you.  

 This means that only certain words within a sentence need to be understood for a child to follow the instruction.  We can call these information carrying words. This table summarises the typical age a child acquires each level of understanding.    

Number of words the child can understand  Age 


1 year  “Where’s teddy? 
2 years  teddy’s nose 
3 years  “put the spoon under the plate 
4 years  “give big teddy the red ball 

 Each of the coloured words indicate the information carrying words and there will need to be an element of choice at each level. For example, when asking the child to ‘put the spoon under the plate’, there must be a choice of objects e.g. spoon, fork, plate, cup. The child needs to understand spoon and plate and that it should go ‘under‘ rather than ‘on’.  

Understanding of words develops before the use of words (children need to have words they can understand (vocabulary) before they are able to start using them). This means that they may be understanding and using different word levels. For example, they might be understanding instructions at a 3 information carrying word level but still only using 2 word phrases. 


Children begin to understand words by hearing them repeatedly, in a range of different contexts. It is useful to:   

  • Face-to-face: face your child when talking to them so they can see your facial expressions as well as hear the words you use 
  • Use simple language: to talk about everyday things 
  • Interest: Talk about things your child is interested in and looking at (“it’s a dog”, “ball” etc) 
  • Comment: on what your child is doing as they are doing it (“cuddle teddy”, “drink milk” etc) 
  • Reduce questions: commenting on what your child can see (as above) is more useful than asking ‘what’s that’ 
  • Rule of thumb: Try following this by only asking 1 question to every 4 comments 
  • Minimise distractions: such as background noise (TV or music) when talking to your child 
  • Visuals: show your child what you are talking about 

Activities and Games to help your child 

Following the above advice will be a great way to help your child develop understanding of language. Repeating words in every day routines helps children to learn familiar words.    

  • Play simple games: ‘ready, steady, go’, ‘peekaboo’, ‘bubbles’ – choose words to use during these activities and repeat them lots of times e.g. ‘ready, steady, go’, ‘where’s…?’, ‘more bubbles’ 
  • Share stories – look at the pictures together and repeat the words for your child. Describe the pictures that your child is looking at. As your child gets older, use longer story books and talk about what is happening.  
  • Everyday activities – repeat the same language in familiar situations ‘coat on’, ‘shoes on’, ‘hat off’.   
  • Feely bag – create a bag with a range of different toys and items inside (e.g. hairbrush, cup, toothbrush, car, ball). Take turns of pulling an item out of the bag and saying the word for your child to hear. As your child’s understanding improves, you can give them a clue about the item and see if they can guess before you show them what it is.  

  If you’re worried about your child’s understanding of language, please consult a Speech and Language Therapist.   

This website uses cookies and asks your personal data to enhance your browsing experience.