Developmental Language Disorder - How can I help?

What is DLD?

You probably know that most children are able to understand and use language within the first 5 years of their life – this is the critical period where an awful lot of learning takes place for our little ones…especially when it comes to developing communication skills. Children then go on to consolidate these new skills throughout their life. Learning and developing their language skills is known as language acquisition.

Most children have no problem acquiring language, and are able to do this successfully without any specific teaching. They seem to effortlessly ‘soak up’ all the wonderful words they hear around them and begin to learn how to understand and use those words to communicate. However, around 7% of children have significant difficulty when it comes to developing those all-important core language skills. That’s quite a lot of children…around 2 children in every class! These little ones have what’s known today as Developmental Language Disorder…DLD for short. DLD is when children have specific difficulties with processing language, which can significantly affect their ability to understand what others are saying to them and/or to be able to effectively use language to express themselves verbally.

Considering DLD is quite common, and has been around for a while, people don’t tend to know about it. Why…? Well, it’s a ‘hidden’ disorder, meaning it’s not immediately apparent. So to recap…there are around 2 children in every class with a disorder that is poorly understood and under-identified. It also doesn’t help matters when it comes to promoting awareness when the terminology keeps changing. Until recently, there have been other names used for DLD. These include ‘Specific Language Impairment (SLI)’ and ‘language disorder’. It is now widely agreed that DLD is the correct term to use – thank goodness!

How to spot DLD

DLD is a hidden disorder, so how can we tell if a child struggles with language? As well as for parents, it is especially important for teachers to be quick at noticing some of these signs. Research states that around 50-90% of children with DLD have difficulties lasting throughout their childhood (Hulme & Snowling, 2009)…and sometimes into adulthood. Without awareness and intervention of DLD, problems are unlikely to resolve, which may lead to significant difficulties in education, and also potential difficulties with mental health and even employment prospects later on in life.

So, what can we look for?

Children with DLD may…

·       not put up their hand in class

·       struggle to complete their work

·       show signs that they are not progressing with their learning in-line with their peers – may have particular difficulties with literacy

·       take longer to answer questions or respond to what you have said

·       struggle to follow a conversation

·       be confusing to listen to – their words may be inaccurate or in the wrong order


How We Can Help – 10 Strategies!

If you suspect that a child may have DLD, please refer them to a Speech and Language Therapist as soon as possible. Having the right support in place is crucial and can make a remarkable difference.

Good News! There are a lot of things you can do to help your child whilst you are waiting for your first Speech Therapy appointment.

Here are 10 best strategies that you can try at home or school. There’s no need to do them all at once…try one for a few days whilst you notice the difference…then add another one.



It’s easy to be distracted and tune out of what is being said to us if we have difficulty listening to and understanding language. Try to get your child’s attention by physically going down to their level when you speak to them. Saying their name first will also help to gain eye-contact and help the child to fully attend to what it is you are about to say. In busy classroom environments, children with DLD may need more breaks from listening than the other children – it can be quite hard work and tiring for them.



Reduce the length of your sentences wherever possible. Say things in the order they need to be done. For example, instead of saying “Before you line up for lunch, go and wash your hands” say “Wash your hands. Then line up for lunch”. Some children will need you to give one instruction first, then the next instruction once they have completed the first. Try to slow your speech down a little so that the child has more time to process the information. Remember point 1… get their attention first!



After you have told the class what they need to do, always try to give the children a brief summary of what you said. Remember to use short, simple sentences and words as far as possible. Some children may benefit from you repeating (more than once if possible) the list of tasks using your fingers to keep count. Others may need additional visual prompts. Using a visual list of pictures on the wall for the whole class to see can often be really helpful when giving a longer list of instructions for the children to follow. Using pictures alongside spoken language can make understanding what you are saying so much easier, especially for children with DLD. Pictures also don’t disappear, so you have a lot more time to process and act on the information…unlike speech!


4.     SHOW THEM

Visual support, as mentioned above, can be really helpful, not just for children with language difficulties, but for all children when learning new concepts and vocabulary. Use pictures, signs and demonstrate. Use as many senses as possible…look, touch, draw and demonstrate to the children what they need to do. Get your creative juices flowing!



Children with DLD often have difficulty making links between words. Show them by linking new or harder words to simpler ones. Talk about words – what does it sound like, can you draw it or act it, what other words have a similar meaning? There’s lots of ways to teach new words…please see my Blog on ‘Teaching Vocabulary’.



We want so desperately to help children develop their language that sometimes we bombard them with too much language, and often this naturally includes lots of questions. This can be quite challenging for children who have difficulty processing and responding to language. Questions words in themselves are not easy to understand (who, where, what, when, why, how). Try to comment on what the child is doing a more often. We can also comment on what we are doing. This will have the added bonus of providing an adult model of language for the child to imitate.



It can sometimes be tricky for children with DLD to retain verbal information and remember the words in your sentence. Therefore, you can make your language simpler. For example, rather than “what do you want for snack?” try “would you like an apple or a banana?”. For very young children, they will often need to be shown the fruit as you say them. You can also simplify more complex questions. For example, if “What did you see at the museum?” is too hard try “did we see dinosaurs or flowers?”. Start by offering obvious choices to boost confidence, but then you can gradually try offering more similar options.


8.     ADD A WORD

If your child says a short phrase or sentence, model it back to them and add a word or two to help extend their language. For example, if your child says “doggy drinking” you could say “yes, doggy’s drinking the water”. If your child says “the dog is drinking the water” you could say “yes, the dog is drinking the water quickly…he must be thirsty”.



Children with DLD may say words in the wrong order or they may have some grammatical errors in their language. Don’t tell them it is wrong and this can be discouraging. Instead, just model the sentence back to the child with any errors corrected. For example, if your child says “I goed swimming”, you could say “that’s right, you went swimming”.



Always check that children with DLD have understood what they have been asked to do, or any new concept they have been taught. Some children will be able to repeat back to you, in their own words, what they have to do, but for other children this may be too difficult. It can be useful for a whole class to repeat back the important points. For example, the teacher could say “Remember…we need to write the date. What do we need to write?...Tell the person next to you, what do we need to write?...Whisper it as quiet as you can, what do we need to write?...Shout it…”  You get the idea!


Please share this post and help us put Developmental Language Disorder back on people’s radars. There is so much we can do and it’s never too late to put support in place.



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