Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in Childhood

Developmental Language Disorder, (previously known as Specific Language Impairment), is a communication difficulty. The disorder is thought to have a genetic link, and it is usual for several members of the same family to experience similar problems. Current research estimates that between 3% and 10% of school children experience a DLD. 

A DLD will give the child a difficulty with receptive and / or expressive language. Receptive language refers to an individual’s capacity to understand spoken and written language. Expressive language refers to their ability to use language to convey meaning.

When a child has a receptive language problem, they: –

  • experience difficulties following a conversation, particularly if the content of the conversation is unfamiliar and people are talking quickly.
  • have a problem with understanding instructions and directions, particularly when the instruction has several parts: ‘Please could you go upstairs to Chloe’s room, and see if you can find her navy blue socks in the left hand side drawer of the wardrobe. If they’re not there, have a look on the top shelf of the airing cupboard.’
  • appear to lack interest when books are read to them.

When a child has an expressive language problem, they: –

  • have a restricted vocabulary. Their speech may seem immature for their age.
  • talk less than their peers. They will not volunteer conversation easily, particularly with people outside the family.
  • experience word finding problems. This will make their conversation seem hesitant and disjointed. 
  • mis-use words that are similar or sound similar.
  • use grammar and tenses inappropriately.

When looking at the difficulties a child with a language disorder experiences, it is easy to see how the child’s difficulties could be interpreted differently. For example: –

  • As a slow processing or working memory difficulty. The child doesn’t seem to retain or process information given verbally and is constantly asking for repetition.
  • As an attention weakness because the child so often seems ‘away with the fairies.’ Perhaps the conversation is moving too quickly for them to follow, or they have given up trying because it is tiring to concentrate so hard.
  • As naughtiness. The child may be slow to get down to work because they are uncertain of what they’re meant to be doing. They may use avoidance tactics: going to the toilet, sharpening pencils, talking to their peers to check what they are working on or copying the work of others.
  • As a social communication weakness. When the child does not quite understand what is being said, they may respond inappropriately.
  • As shyness. If the child is uncertain of what is being discussed in class, they will be unwilling to answer questions or volunteer an opinion. This behaviour may be interpreted as shyness.

How to help.

  1. Make sure you have the child’s attention before you begin to speak. Say their name before talking to them, asking questions or giving instructions.
  2. Ensure the child is given enough time to speak without being interrupted or hurried. 
  3. Adapt your conversation so that your speech is slower and your sentences are shorter.
  4. Tell the child that you are happy to repeat instructions, (without comment or criticism.)
  5. Use body language to emphasise essential information.
  6. Double check that the child has understood what has been said, by asking them to repeat instructions in their own words. 
  7. Encourage the children to speak up if they are confused or uncertain. (See point 4.)
  8. Do not give important instructions if the child is involved in another activity, and their attention focused elsewhere.
  9. If instructions are complex, provide a written list for the older child to follow. Simplify and ‘chunk’ directions for the younger child.
  10. Use visuals: gestures, diagrams, pictures, videos or role play to help the child understand and retain information. 

It is important that any language problems are identified at an early age, as such difficulties will affect a child’s speaking, listening and literacy skills and therefore, have a knock-on impact on their performance in the classroom.

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