Action Step and Orientation

SBI 4. Provide intentionally designed opportunities for children to develop expressive language.

In this lesson, you and your team will learn how to support children in developing expressive language.

Part 1 of this lesson defines expressive language, provides an overview of the state guidelines for expressive language skills, and describes some developmental milestones.

Part 2 provides information about how to develop children’s expressive language, as well as assess and support their individual needs.

In Part 3, you will find example scenarios that show children developing expressive language skills.

To get started, download the Implementation Guide for this component and refer to the Action Step for this lesson. Review the Implementation Indicators for each level of implementation and note the Sample Evidence listed at the bottom of the chart.

Part 1—Expressive Language

Expressive language is the ability to use words, phrases, sentences, and body language to communicate. Although vocabulary development is important, expressive language encompasses more than just knowing what words mean. It is the ability to combine words to make understandable phrases and sentences and to use gestures and facial expressions to convey meaning.

Note that expressive language is different from speech production, which is forming speech sounds using the lips, teeth, and tongue. Expressive language is the ability to formulate thoughts and then use phrases or sentences, gestures, or facial expressions to express them to others.

Expressive language and receptive language are closely related. Receptive language is the ability to understand oral (spoken) language, as well as other communication through gestures, facial expressions, and later, writing. (You can find more information in Lesson SBI 3—Receptive language skills.) This course introduces and describes expressive and receptive language separately to help you better understand each. However, they are not separate skills. Rather, they are developed together as children listen to, understand, and respond to adults and other children and as they interact with their environment.

There is a lot teachers can do to support children in developing expressive language skills. To understand the role of the teacher in developing expressive language in children, it is important to be familiar with expressive language milestones.

The following is a description of common expressive language milestones. It is important to remember that children learn and develop at their own pace. This means that the children at your early education center may acquire these skills at different rates.

  • At age 0–6 months, a child might make sounds to express needs, begin to move his or her mouth when looking at a caregiver talking, and babble in a way that sounds like speech.
  • At age 6–12 months, a child might begin to say real words and show a desire to communicate wants and needs by doing such things as waving arms, pointing, or using hand motions.
  • At age 1–2 years, a child might say two-word phrases such as “Go bye-bye” and ask two-word questions such as “Where Mama?”
  • At age 2–3 years, a child might say three- to four-word sentences such as “Milk all gone” and talk about events in the recent past. He or she might also name objects to ask for them.
  • At age 3–4 years, a child might use sentences to express needs and speak about events using the past tense. A four-year-old might also ask a teacher for help solving a problem and use appropriate volume and intonation for different situations.

Sources: Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, pp. 51–53; Texas Education Agency, pp. 47–50, 52–57, 58–62, and 74–75; and National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institute of Health

The Texas Infant, Toddler, and Three-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines present a more comprehensive list of expressive language behaviors. They can be found in the “Communication and Speaking” component of the Language and Communication Development domain.

This component also provides strategies teachers can use to support children’s expressive language behaviors. For example, a teacher might model using different tones of voice when speaking to older infants (ages 8–18 months) and pause to allow older infants to respond. A teacher might also support toddlers (ages 18–36 months) in using “multiple words to describe and communicate feelings.” The teacher can do so by encouraging toddlers to name their feelings. He or she might say, “Darius, tell Maya how you felt when she knocked your blocks down,” or “You are smiling so big. Are you happy?” (Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, pp. 54–55).

Expressive language skills are also covered in two domains of the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines (Updated 2015): Language and Communication, and Emergent Literacy. The domains include expressive language behaviors you might see in four-year-olds, as well as strategies for supporting these behaviors for both native English speakers and English learners (ELs).

Here is a description of components that apply to expressive language:

The Speaking (Conversation) Skills component addresses children’s increasing ability to “describe wants and needs, carry on a conversation with others, and share information with both peers and adults.” This includes using both spoken language and gestures and expressions. For example, a teacher might role-play conversations using appropriate nonverbal behaviors: “Watch my face while I am talking to Maria. See how I watch her while she is talking. I smile and say, ‘How wonderful!’ if she tells me something good. I look sad and say, ‘You’re feeling sad about losing your teddy,’ if she tells me something that is sad.”

The teacher might also model using appropriate language and tone in different social situations. This would support children in following “the classroom rule regarding ‘quiet voices.’” (Texas Education Agency, pp. 47–50).

The Vocabulary Skills component addresses the development of concepts (ideas) and learning new words. It also supports children in refining their understanding of words through experiences such as play.

For example, children might use their expanding vocabulary to add information related to a current topic of conversation. A teacher could support this behavior by providing new experiences and content for children to discuss and interact (Texas Education Agency, pp. 52–57). (For more information about preparing intentionally designed opportunities for vocabulary development, see Lesson SBI 2—Vocabulary.)

The Sentences and Structure Skills component supports children’s use of vocabulary and grammar knowledge to convey meaning. Examples of child behaviors are combining sentences to link ideas and overgeneralizing grammatical rules, which is a natural part of language acquisition. Teachers can model using more complex sentence structures and have children play word games with irregular plurals to support children’s expressive language development (Texas Education Agency, pp. 58–62).

The Comprehension of Text Read Aloud Skills component supports expressive language behaviors related to children’s understanding stories and other texts they hear. These include children’s ability to retell and reenact a story and answer questions about a book. A teacher can support these behaviors by providing props and puppets for children to use while acting out a story or asking children questions about the story (Texas Education Agency, pp. 74–76).

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TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about expressive language development, you may want to review the following sources:

The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) section of the National Institute of Health’s website has information on speech and language development, including expressive language milestones.

The Texas Infant, Toddler, and Three-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese provide information on expressive language behaviors for children ages 0–48 months, as well as suggested instructional strategies. See the Language and Communication Development introduction and the Communication and Speaking component (pp. 49 and 54–55).

The Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines (Updated 2015) provide information on expressive language behaviors for 4- to 5-year-old children, as well as suggested instructional strategies. See the following sections:

  • Language and Communication Domain introduction (p. 45)
  • Speaking (Conversational) Skills component (pp. 47–50)
  • Vocabulary Skills component (pp. 52–57)
  • Sentences and Structure Skills component (pp. 58–62)
  • Emergent Literacy: Reading Domain introduction (p. 64)
  • Comprehension of Text Read Aloud Skills component (pp. 74–76)

Part 2—How to Support Children in Developing Expressive Language

Intentionally designed learning opportunities are lessons created with specific outcomes in mind. Because expressive language skills are not isolated skills, their development can be among several desired outcomes for a lesson.

For example, a lesson where four-year-olds hear a story about friends working together to make a vegetable soup could have several desired outcomes. These could include learning the names of the vegetables, demonstrating understanding by asking and answering questions about the story (showing both receptive [listening] and expressive [speaking] language skills), and reenacting the story events using hand puppets.

In addition to planning lessons, teachers can incorporate expressive language development into all interactions with children by engaging them in conversations. Teachers should be intentional about providing children with opportunities to express themselves throughout the day.

Here are some strategies and activities teachers can use to help children develop expressive language:

Add information and ask a question: Teachers can add information and then ask a question in response to something a child has said. For example, if the child says, “Got block!” the teacher might respond with “Yes, you got the block from the bin! What color is the block?” The child might respond, “Blue!”

Narrate and ask questions about their own actions: Teachers can narrate as they perform actions and ask children questions to encourage them to use expressive language. Teachers can talk and ask questions about what they themselves are doing, seeing, and hearing. They can also talk and ask questions about where they are going, what they are going to do, and what they have just done.

For example, a teacher might say, “I am going to build a tower. I see some big blocks I can use. I will put two blocks on top of two yellow ones. Which color blocks did I put on the yellow ones?” The child might respond, “Red blocks!” “That’s right!” the teacher might say. “I put two red ones. What is happening to my tower?” “Getting bigger!” the child might respond. “Yes, my tower is getting bigger and bigger, isn’t it!”

Teachers can also use narration to discuss and model appropriate expressive language behaviors. For example, a teacher might say, “Rose wants to tell me something. Watch my face while she is talking. I will look at her and pay careful attention to what she is saying. I will wait until she is finished talking before I respond” (Texas Education Agency, p. 50).

Narrate and ask questions about the child’s actions: Teachers can also narrate and ask questions about what children are doing. For example, if a child is playing with a toy pony, the teacher might say, “You brushed the pony’s mane and tail. What is the pony doing now?” The child might respond, “Running!” and the teacher might say, “Yes, the pony is galloping fast, isn’t it?”

Give children choices: Teachers can ask children to make a choice. This will help the child to use words rather than using only gestures to communicate. For example, a teacher might say, “Would you rather play a game or read a book?”

Play: Teachers should play enjoyable games with children. They can introduce and use new words and phrases during the game and encourage children to use them, too.

Name items: Teachers can encourage children to name items with them when they play with toys, read books, or do other activities. For example, while reading aloud to toddlers, a teacher might point at a picture of a cat and say, “Here’s a cat. Can you say cat?”

Read stories and ask questions: When teachers read stories, it allows children to hear language used appropriately. As teachers read, they can ask children questions about what is happening and why. This will encourage children to use the words and phrases in the story in their responses.

Have children retell and reenact: Teachers can give children puppets or props to use while acting out a story they just heard or a familiar story such as a fairytale. Teachers can ask questions and use prompts to help children if they forget details during the retelling or reenactment.

Teachers can also extend a story by having children do activities in centers. For example, children can draw and talk about a story or plant seeds in a science center (Texas Education Agency, p. 74).

Write letters: Teachers can have older children compose letters to friends, family members, or characters in a story. For example, teachers might write as children tell them what they want the letter to say. They might have older children write their name at the end.

Sing: Teachers can have children sing songs with them.

Talk about a picture: The teacher can talk with a child about a picture. Then the teacher can write next to the picture what the teacher and child said. With older children, a teacher could have a set of pictures or photographs, and the teacher and child could make up a story about them.

Teachers can also encourage children to talk about pictures they are drawing. Rather than say, “You drew a mouse!” they can ask questions such as “What is happening in your picture?” or “What is your mouse doing?”

You will find many more suggestions for supporting expressive language in the guidelines.

Infant sign language

Infant sign language consists of gestures adapted from American Sign Language. Teaching a few simple signs for commonly used terms, such as cup, milk, nap, no, yes, and water, can help very young children communicate. It can ease the frustrations of young children who can identify what they feel, want, or need but lack expressive language skills.

Generally, infants can be shown these signs as early as six to seven months. Children might begin using them at eight to nine months or later. As long as adults do not use the signs instead of speaking, but rather say the word along with the sign, sign language does not delay expressive language development (Hoeckler, 2013).

You might consider professional development opportunities for teachers interested in using infant sign language at your early childhood site.

Teachers can assess children’s expressive language skills by watching for instances when children appear to have trouble communicating their feelings, wants, or needs. Teachers can frequently check that children are responding appropriately. They might ask older children questions that require verbal responses or ask children to retell part of a story in their own words.

There are several possible reasons children may have difficulties with expressive language. You and your team should have a system in place for talking to parents about concerns related to children’s expressive language skills and for connecting parents with professionals who can assess possible developmental delays or disabilities. If you need more information about developing a process to share observation and assessment information with families and specialists, see Lesson A4—Special learning needs in the Assessment module.

Part 3—Expressive Language Scenarios

The following scenarios show how teachers at one early childhood education center support the expressive language development of children of different ages and assess individual children’s needs. Notice how, as children grow and develop, they are able to express themselves in more and more complex ways.

Infants Ms. Miranda is a teacher for infants up to age 12 months at ABC Early Learning Center. Even though these young children do not seem to have communication skills, Ms. Miranda knows and understands the importance of developing their expressive language, so she intentionally includes expressive language development in her lesson plans. Today, she is reading a book about farm animals. She shows the children plastic farm animals as she reads about them in the story. Jordan, eight months old, reaches for the plastic cow as Ms. Miranda shows it to the class. Ms. Miranda says to Jordan, “This is a cow, Jordan. Can you say cow?” Jordan responds by squealing in delight. Ms. Miranda then says, “Yay, Jordan! Good job. Here, you can hold the cow.”

Young toddlers Ms. McKenzie is a teacher for toddlers up through 18 months old. Ms. McKenzie also works at ABC Early Learning Center and knows Ms. Miranda’s approach to working with the children in her class. Sebastian, 15 months old, has been at ABC Early Learning Center since he was an infant. Today, Ms. McKenzie is reading her class a story that includes some farm animals. She has some cards with the animals labeled on them laid out on the floor in front of her. When Ms. McKenzie reads about a cow, Sebastian says, “Moo! Moo! Cow!” Ms. McKenzie smiles and then encourages all of the children to say the word cow.

Older toddlers, including English learners (ELs) Mr. Martin teaches two-year-olds at ABC Early Learning Center. Miriam, age 27 months, is a child in Mr. Martin’s classroom and has been at ABC Early Learning Center since she was 18 months old. Spanish is the language spoken primarily in Miriam’s home. Mr. Martin speaks basic Spanish and uses it when necessary. Today, Mr. Martin reads a story with farm animals in it. He distributes small farm animal figurines. Miriam receives the cow figurine and begins to examine it. Mr. Martin asks, “Miriam, what animal do you have?” Miriam says, “Vaca.” Mr. Martin realizes that Miriam knows the name of the animal in Spanish but may not know its name in English. He takes a moment to tell the class that vaca in Spanish is the same as cow in English. He then asks the class to say the word in English and in Spanish. Next, Mr. Martin asks Miriam what sound a cow makes. She answers by saying, “Cow say moo.” While her response does not use standard grammar, Mr. Martin takes note that Miriam has used the English word cow and has used one language consistently within her sentence.

Three-year-olds Ms. Rosa teaches three-year-olds. She is transitioning to story time at the carpet. As the children move to the carpet area, she assigns each child a farm animal figurine to select from the shelf. She asks the children to get their animal before being seated. Joseph is assigned a cow and selects the correct figurine as he moves to the carpet area. Ms. Rosa reads a story in which different farm animals are paired. After reading the story a second time, Ms. Rosa asks the children to pair up based on the farm animals in the book. Joseph’s cow is paired with a pig, and Kelly has the pig. The two children pair up and stand together, just as their animals do in the book. Ms. Rosa then asks the children to take turns telling each other what their animals do in the book. She allows time for each child to share. Next, she asks the children to tell the group about their partner’s animal by using the following prompts:

Teacher: Which animal does your partner have? S/he has the . . . Child: S/he has the . . . (example: “cow.”) Teacher: And what does the animal do? Child: It ___________. (example: “gives milk.”)

Four-year-olds Ms. Rosa works with the four-year-old class in the afternoons. Much like with the three-year-olds, she has the children select the appropriate animal from the shelf. After reading the story, she has the children find their animal partner from the story and pair up. Ms. Rosa then asks the partners to use their figurines to act out the part of the story related to their animals. Ms. Rosa moves around the room to look for opportunities to encourage and support children to use more expressive language as they act out parts of the story. Ms. Rosa then tells the children that they are going to create a class book, each making a page for his or her animal from the story. The children move to the tables where the papers and crayons have already been laid out. Bailey excitedly begins drawing the cow giving milk from the story. Ms. Rosa helps Bailey to add the words “The cow gives milk” to the bottom of her page. Ms. Rosa then creates a cover for the book and assembles all pages together. She places the book in the classroom library for all children to “read” and explore.

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NEXT STEPS: Depending on your progress in providing intentionally designed opportunities for children to develop expressive language, you may want to consider the following next steps:

  • Read and discuss the state guidelines and additional resources about expressive language development.
  • Provide the guidelines to your staff and meet with them to review the guidelines and discuss expectations for their use.
  • Assess needs for and plan professional development on the state guidelines, the language and pre-literacy programs or curricula, and additional resources.
  • Support instructional staff in using strategies to develop expressive language skills in all lessons and activities.


SBI 4. Provide intentionally designed opportunities for children to develop expressive language.

With your site/campus-based leadership team, review your team’s self-assessed rating for Action Step SBI 4 in the TSLP Implementation Status Ratings document and then respond to the four questions in the assignment.

TSLP Implementation Status Ratings 0-SE

In completing your assignment with your team, the following resources and information from this lesson’s content may be useful to you:

  • Part 1 defines expressive language, describes some developmental milestones, and provides an overview of the state guidelines for expressive language skills.
  • Part 2 provides information about how to develop children’s expressive language, as well as assess and support their individual needs.
  • Part 3 provides example scenarios that show children developing expressive language skills.

Next Steps also contains suggestions that your site or campus may want to consider when you focus your efforts on this Action Step.

To record your responses, go to the Assignment template for this lesson and follow the instructions.


Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. (2013). Texas infant, toddler, and three-year-old early learning guidelines. Retrieved from

Hoeckler, J. L. (2013). Is baby sign language worthwhile? The Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institute of Health. (2014). Speech and language developmental milestones. Retrieved from

Texas Education Agency. (2015). Texas prekindergarten guidelines. Retrieved from