Expressive language skills are those skills that relate to the organization, production and context of what a person says. The areas of expressive language are expansive and varied; however, a few highlights are discussed here within the context of this Social Thinking forum.

Expressive Language skills fall in the realm of vocabulary, morphology/syntax (grammar), describing/defining skills, verbal narrative skills (re-telling a story), and discourse skills (explain, persuade, inform, compare/contrast). In contrast to Receptive Language skills, these skills relate to how a person communicates thoughts, needs, experiences, and opinions. In some cases, there can be differences between a receptive level of knowledge and an expressive level of skill. For example, “receptive vocabulary” refers to words that a student understands, while “expressive vocabulary” refers to words that a student uses aloud. Most typically, a person’s receptive vocabulary is more developed than his or her expressive vocabulary. Consider how a toddler develops language. There are many more words that a toddler understands than they say day to day. In the case of students on the autism spectrum, one might find the expressive language to be more developed than the receptive language. This is the opposite of what one would expect. One theory to explain this reversal is that students on the autism spectrum may display superior strengths in rote memory and decoding ability (sometimes referred to as hyperlexia). The child may hear vocabulary words, or decode them in texts and can be very savvy about using them in contexts that are similar to the context they first heard it. Then, when asked what a word or phrase means, a child may not know. These vocabulary words and phrases were recorded in their vocabulary without a meaning attached. Further, given inferential reasoning challenges for learners with ASD, they may not be able to infer the meaning of a vocabulary word given context cues either.

Similarly, the grammar of children with ASD, can appear to be more sophisticated or formal than that of their peers. This certainly is not always the case.  It depends entirely on the overall language strengths and needs of a child. When grammar appears more formal, the child may have heard these grammatical structures and imprinted them in their minds, only to recall them later to use in a scenario that is contextually similar. The scenarios of children recalling advanced vocabulary words or formal grammar structures is related to the phenomenom of “delayed echolalia”. When learners with ASD use “delayed echolalia”, they are recalling words or phrases that were recorded with the help of rote memory strengths in various contexts they were learned. Many times, the vocal intonation is exactly the same as when the words or phrases were heard originally. I can recall many instances that a child says something that I know to be from SpongeBob or some other cartoon, book series, or even coming from my own mouth!

The last area of expressive language I would like to highlight in this Social Thinking forum is verbal narrative skills. A narrative is a monologue by which a person re-tells a story they have heard or an experience they had. This is an expressive communication task that encompasses many individual skills such as sequencing, providing adequate background knowledge, vocabulary, grammar skills, and story elements such as focusing on a main idea and connecting events. Narrative skills are important for students to learn how to describe events in their lives in an organized, understandable manner for their listeners. They need to ensure they are providing enough background information so their thoughts make sense. On some occasions, students may tell a personal story about something they have done, but leave out critical details such as when an event occurred or forget to mention the people involved. This results in the listener needing to ask several follow-up questions to understand the gist of the story. During academic tasks, students may get stuck on irrelevant details when re-telling the plot, sometimes missing the main idea altogether. Work on expressive narrative skills will benefit students as they engage in social conversations. These skills will also benefit students academically with the organization and thoroughness for more complex written language assignments.

The Teaching Ideas section under this Expressive Language skills page contains ideas for you to explore and PDF documents you can download and use. Check back often to find new ideas!

© Jill D. Kuzma, Minneapolis MN, 2008. All Rights Reserved.
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