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Children demonstrate the ability to comprehend both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Receptive language refers to how well children understand language. Children spend their first year listening to the sounds around them.

Newborns can make out all the distinctive sounds used in all languages and can hear differences that adults cannot.1 However, after six months of age, children concentrate on discriminating sounds and patterns in their primary language. Therefore, their ear becomes more finely tuned to their primary language, and they lose the ability to discriminate speech sounds in other languages.2 These speech sounds and patterns are the first tools for building vocabulary and an understanding of what is being communicated.

Children understand a lot more than they can express. Children demonstrate understanding through both nonverbal and verbal communication. At one year of age, children understand familiar requests in known situations. For example, a 10-month-old waves his hand after his caregiver says, “Wave bye-bye.” As they get older, children can understand more complex commands, including multistep directions. For example, a 30-month-old follows directions when his caregiver says, “Pick up the ball and bring it to me.” The number of words children understand also grows on a daily basis. At the end of 12 months, children can understand approximately 50 words. By 36 months, children have the capacity to understand about 1000 words.3 Receptive language development is important because the ability to understand and interpret language influences how successful children are in socially interacting with others.

Nonverbal Communication vs. Verbal Communication

Language includes nonverbal and verbal forms of communication. Early forms of nonverbal communication consist of reflexes, eye contact, gaze aversion, and body language. Children later use gestures, such as pointing and shaking their heads to convey feelings and wants. Verbal communication begins with cries, sounds, and coos. Eventually, children use single words to name objects and people. Between 24 months and 36 months of age, children combine words and begin to form short, clear sentences. Children who have a speech or hearing impairment, or are developmentally delayed, can also use nonverbal strategies to understand language and express themselves. Sign language can be used to communicate, and helps ease frustrations in young children when they lack the ability to use words. Pictures and drawings are also good tools for both caregivers and children to use when communicating and expressing themselves.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to respond to verbal and nonverbal communication through the use of sounds and physical movements.

Indicators for children include:

  • Responds to sounds found in the environment, e.g., cries if hears a loud bang, will turn toward a familiar voice
  • Calms down when crying after hearing a soothing and familiar voice or receiving physical reassurance, e.g., a hug or gentle pats on back
  • Looks or turns toward the familiar person who says his or her name
  • Responds to gestures, e.g., waves hello after a familiar person waves to him or her

Strategies for interaction

  • Narrate what is happening in the child’s environment, e.g., “I am going to pick you up and then we will go change your diaper”
  • Consistently respond to the child’s verbal and nonverbal cues in a thoughtful manner
  • Name familiar people and everyday objects found in the child’s environment through verbal and nonverbal communication, e.g., verbally label, point to, touch, and gesture

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to understand and respond to the meaning of actions and sounds.

Indicators for children include:

  • Engages in joint attention with a caregiver, e.g., joins in looking at the same object or shifts gaze to where someone is pointing
  • Follows a one-step, simple request when a gesture is used
  • Responds appropriately to familiar words, e.g., hears the words “so big,” and puts arms in air
  • Understands approximately 100 words relevant to their experiences and cultural context

Strategies for interaction

  • Spend quality time with the child sharing in activities such as reading and playing with toys
  • Play games where the child can point to objects, e.g., “Where is the cup?”
  • Sing songs that are culturally meaningful to the child and encourage him or her to follow along, e.g., “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”
  • Continue to name objects that the child is familiar with, e.g., family members, favorite toys and books

16 months to 24 months

Children begin to demonstrate a complex understanding of meaning in words, facial expressions, gestures, and pictures.

Indicators for children include:

  • Recognizes and demonstrates understanding of familiar pictures, people, and objects, e.g., says “mama” while pointing to mother
  • Understands simple commands and questions and can follow two-step requests with the support of gestures and prompting
  • Demonstrates understanding of familiar words or phrases by responding appropriately, e.g., sits in chair after hearing it is snack time
  • Points to body parts when prompted
  • Responds to personal pronouns, e.g., me, her, him

Strategies for interaction

  • Continue labeling the child’s environment for him or her; name or use sign language when introducing new objects or people
  • Use gestures while asking the child to complete actions, e.g., point to the car and point to the toy basket while saying, “Put the car in the basket.”
  • Ask the child questions while engaged in interactions and activities, e.g., “Can you point to the picture of the kitty?”
  • Engage in movement activities that have the child follow directions
  • Use books and pictures to engage the child in conversations

21 months to 36 months

Children continue to expand their comprehension across a variety of contexts through the use of words, actions, and symbols.

Indicators for children include:

  • Names most objects and people in a familiar environment
  • Comprehends compound statements and can follow multi-step directions
  • Demonstrates understanding of a story by reacting with sounds, facial expressions, and physical movement, e.g., laughing, widening eyes, or clapping
  • Understands simple sentences or directions with prepositions, e.g., “Put cup in sink”
  • Responds verbally and/or nonverbally to comments or questions while engaged in conversations with both peers and adults

Strategies for interaction

  • Continue to label the child’s environment for him or her; name or use sign language when introducing new objects or people
  • Ask the child to complete two-step actions, e.g., “Please put the cup in the sink and then wash your hands.”
  • Read with the child often; ask them questions about what just happened in the story or what will happen next
  • Ask the child about their favorite toy or friend; gently prompt them to expand their answer


  1. Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A.N., & Kuhl, P.K. (1999). The scientist in the crib. New York: Perennial.
  2. Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A.N., & Kuhl, P.K. (1999). The scientist in the crib. New York: Perennial.
  3. Lindfors, J.W. (1991). Language acquisition: Developmental sequence. In Children’s language and learning (2nd ed., pp. 111–157). Reprinted from: Erikson Institute WebCT.
Reviewed: 2012