Receptive Language refers to how a person comprehends and processes language. At the most basic level, people have a basic vocabulary they understand. Included is a foundation of concepts a person understands, such as spatial concepts (“above, beside, between”, etc). Other concept categories include; size, temporal, quantity, and quality concepts. Children are continually learning the meanings of new vocabulary words and organizing them in their brains into categories. Thus, if a child learns the meaning of the word, “enormous,”  the child may file that vocabulary word away in their “brain file” for size concept words.

Similarly, children are also continually comparing and contrasting how words and concepts are related. Each new concept or word is compared to a child’s prior knowledge about the world. For example, if a child learns about kites, they compare their prior knowledge related to toys, wind, and the sky. The child thinks about the attributes of a kite and classifies the item into various categories such as, “things that fly,” or “outside toys.”  Receptive language therapy often focuses on expanding a child’s vocabulary base and assisting them in being able to compare and contrast attributes of an item for the purpose of accurate categorization.

Categorization skills are especially critical to address with a student on the autism spectrum. Most children tend to process information in a holistic fashion – seeing the big picture or main idea and THEN considering the details of an idea. They naturally are hard wired to process the big picture. This is called, “Central Coherence.” In contrast, it is theorized that children on the autism spectrum have Weak Central Coherence. In other words, it is theorized that children with ASD are hard wired to naturally lean toward processing the finite details of information before attempting the see the big picture. Seeing the BIG PICTURE is necessary for categorizing and classifying information.

Consider a child who is learning about the history of the Titanic. A child that processes holistically would learn the big picture of the event:   The Titanic was a famous luxury ship that struck an iceberg and sank in the early part of the century. Students that have Weak Central Coherence may get stuck on less important, or less relevant details of the event such as the number of people aboard, how long it took to sink, or the names of famous people aboard. While these are details that may be included in the study of the Titanic, they are not the most crucial details.

To illustrate further using a social context, student that processes information holistically might arrive onto the playground for recess and scan the whole scene categorizing various activities: playground equipment, games kids are playing on the blacktop, and games kids are playing in the field. THEN, the child would zero in on which activity – (i.e. detail) they want to play for the day. In contrast, a child with Weak Central Coherence, may arrive on the same playground focusing in on finite details such as the number of playground clerks out that day as compared to the day before, a broken chain on a swing, how many kids are waiting for the glider, etc. In summary, it is important to note that for students on the autism spectrum, receptive language work should focus on categorization and compare/contrast activities throughly given the fact that this is not the preferred mode of processing for many students.

Receptive language skills also focus on how a child comprehends, or understands language. There are two types of comprehension. Literal comprehension refers to how one understands concrete information in a passage they read, or in something they hear. Literal comprehension questions start with “WH” words typically – “who, what, where, when”. Literal comprehension is the first type of comprehension to develop because the information is concrete and explicitly stated in the story. Children who have receptive language delays or disorders often rely on visual cues or pictures to help them understand the details of a story. As students strengthen their receptive language skills, they are able to wean off of these visual prompts. Literal comprehension can be checked by asking children questions after a story such as, “Who was the story about?” “Who was the main character?”, “Where did the story take place?”, “When did the story take place?”, “What happened at the beginning…middle…end?” These comprehension questions are the focus on kindergarten and first grade literacy endeavors.

Inferential comprehension is a more sophisticated form of comprehension. The information is not directly stated.  Rather the child needs to think about what they know from the story and draw conclusions to answer the questions. The “answer” to this comprehension question is not explicitly stated, rather it is implicitly formulated. The child must think about the prior knowledge or experience they already have with a topic and blend this with details they have learned from the story to answer the question. Many inferential comprehension questions begin with question words such as, “why, what if, how, do you think…”. For example, given the story “Little Red Riding Hood”, an inferential question would be: “How did Little Red Riding Hood figure out that Grandma was really the wolf?” In the story, Cinderella, and inferential question would be, “What would happen if Cinderella’s slipper was broken into pieces on the castle steps?”

Inferential comprehension also comes in various categories. Types of inferences to make are: Problem-Solution, Cause-Effect, temporal indicators, setting indicators, character’s emotions/intentions, and author’s purpose, to name just a few. Students may be more adept at making inferences of one particular type over some others. This type of comprehension is the focus for students in 2nd/3rd grade and continues well beyond the elementary age years.

Many students with Social Thinking challenges may display difficulty with inferential comprehension in fiction and texts focusing on character depth and change. Some students will be able to be quite proficient in making logical inferences and deductions given non-fictional, scientific or factual types of material. This manner of forming deductions is more linear and evidenced based, where as fiction pieces focusing on character change and interpersonal dynamics is more emotive and subjective in interpretation. It is important when addressing receptive language needs for students, to be diligent in assessing inferential comprehension needs in various contexts. Such contexts may include logical, deductive reasoning types of tasks, short fictional, social scenarios, more complex inferential scenarios involving character change, emotive motivational factors in a story, or the morale or lesson that author intends for readers. Older students with Social Thinking challenges may struggle more with these kinds of comprehension patterns.

Much of the above information focuses on the comprehension and vocabulary portions of Receptive Language skills. Receptive Language also includes a person’s ability to process auditory information. “Processing” refers to receiving information by hearing it, storing it in short term memory, transferring that information to the working memory where vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension tasks are at work, then finally taking that understanding to other areas of your brain to formulate a response to the information. A student with receptive language needs can have difficulties at any point during this process. Short term memory deficiencies, auditory sequencing problems, a weak vocabulary base, grammatical errors, and word finding difficulties can impede the efficiency of auditory processing. Many times students will work on increasing the capacity of their short term memory, work on sequencing steps, and work on following directions that have multiple parts to strengthen this receptive language skill.

The Teaching Ideas section under this Receptive 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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