Developmental language disorders: A teacher's guide

Allaa Gawish

Developmental language disorders can have a profound effect on a child's education, what positive steps can teachers take in the classroom?

What is a developmental language disorder?

Development language disorder (DLD), considered a neurodevelopmental disorder, that falls under speech, language, and communication needs. It is a long-life condition that affects the child in using and understanding language. It is also known as specific language impairment (SLI), speech disorder, speech-language impairment, or expressive-receptive language disorder. All these names come under the umbrella term of a developmental speech disorder. Children with developmental language difficulties may be at risk of working below their age range level. Children with developmental language difficulties may be struggling with social skills and low educational attainment. The child at the age of 4 has a more stable language ability, therefore the developmental language disorder can be measured accurately at the age of 4. That does not mean that there are no signs of developmental language disorder appearing on the child before age 4 but it is more accurately diagnosed at the age of 4. 

Language skills are a vital tool for everyday life communication, school-age children need verbal capabilities to be able to communicate with others and express themselves. It is estimated that 1 out of 14 children may have difficulty in using phrasing skills or have a developmental language disorder. A useful exercise for understanding oral skills is to place yourself in the child's situation, imagine yourself not being able to express that you are angry. Another example is that you are not able to understand what task you should do while your boss is giving you a deadline to finish it. Imagine how stressful these feelings are? In this article, we will go in-depth on developmental language disorder and look at what positive steps teachers can take in identifying speech issues.

How can we identify developmental language disorder?

It is important to obverse the skills of childrens development milestones, to ensure that the developmental skills are at the proper age range. As with any impairment, children with language disorders will have early signs that careers and parents need to take into consideration. Here are some signs of developmental language disorder:

  • Difficulties in oral phrasing competence:  they may have difficulties in translating their ideas into words and sentences. That is leading to obstacles with social situations and communication difficulties.
  • Difficulty with expressive wording: Children with DLD may struggle to express their feeling and thoughts. Also, difficulties with finding the right words to describe their feelings. As a result, they may be less talkative than others
  • Speech sound disorder: which means skipping sounds out, for example; saying nan instead of banana. Moreover, children with DLD may use wrong sounds, wed instead of red. 
  • Weak language skills:
  1. Children with DLD may struggle with listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills.
  2. Children with DLD may have difficulty remembering what they heard, struggle to pay attention to the given instructions
  3. Having difficulty remembering and learning new words and their vocabulary as result they struggle in reading and writing.
  4. Also, they may not be secured to use correct grammar during writing and speaking.
  5. Difficulty in forming up a sentence 
  6. Difficulty in speaking skills as they may not be able to re-tell a story.  
  • Difficulty with receptive language: difficulty with following verbal instructions, answering questions, misunderstanding what has been said to them. 

All these conditions may result in misbehaving or anxiety for the child, as the child with DLD has obstacles with communication skills. 

All of the above are common signs with DLD but it does not mean that all of these signs will appear on the child. Participators should deal according to each individual child's needs.  

Identifying developmental language disorders
Identifying developmental language disorders

Why do some children have a developmental language disorder?

Language development requires a multitude of interconnected skills including hearing, seeing and comprehending information. There are many studies about DLD, but there is no current study that was able to answer why some children have DLD and some do not. Some studies were able to highlight a common condition that may be resulting in having DLD.

  • Biomedical Condition: such as having autism spectrum disorders, genetic conditions such as down syndrome, where the child has obstacles to communication and learning in everyday life. Different ways of the child's brain and how it is made up and how are the parts of the brain involved with each other  
  • Cognition Condition: cognitive skills are the ability of thinking, paying attention, remembering, and learning. Having difficulty in cognition skills may be a reason for having DLD. As a result, DLD commonly appeared in ADHD and other learning disabilities like dyslexia. 
  • Environmental Condition: lack of nutrition diet, low birth weight, birth conditions like lack of oxygen before and during delivery. 

It is unlikely that only one factor will lead to DLD, usually, there is more than one factor that interacts together that results in DLD. Because of that, it is important to consider the individual needs of each child.

Relationships amongst developmental language disorders
Relationships amongst developmental language disorders


What are the different types of assessment tools used for developmental language disorders? 

To be able to establish a suitable intervention for the child, assessing the child is the fundamental phase to identify the individual child's needs. It is important to use different techniques during the assessment to help the child, including regular breaks, breaking down the task into small chunks, positive reinforcement, or informal assessments like classroom observations. An additional point for assessing bilingual children is that they should be assessed with their first language. To decide if bilingual children have a speech disorder or language delay it should occur in their primary and secondary language. 

Here are standardized language assessments that are used to identify the DLD:

  • CELF-5: The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF), assessing the child's communication and language learning skills in different contexts to identify impaired language development. The age range for this assessment is 5 to 22 years. 
  • PLS-5 English: is to identify receptive and expressive language skills in different areas including play, vocal development, attention, concepts, language structures, and others. It helps in targeting the strengths and weaknesses to know the type of language disorder and identifying the intervention for it. The age range of this assessment is from birth to 7 years old.

Some techniques also may be helpful and enhancing language assessments:

  • Ethnographic Interviewing - open-ended questions used to gain information from the child, teacher, family members, or others. 
  • Analog Tasks - it is observing the child's communication development in real-life scenarios, including working with peers.
  • Naturalistic Observation - to observe the child in daily social life with others, including home and school environment. 
  • Language Sampling - is using language in a variety of contexts including conversation, free play, narration, and expository speech.  

What does a developmental language disorder is look like?
What does a developmental language disorder is look like?

What strategies can support a child with DLD at school?

Every child has individual abilities that needs to be celebrated, neurodiversity has received a lot of attention in schools and the workplace and these differences bring with them advantages. Here is a list of strategies to help children with DLD at home and school:

  • Get the child’s attention – mention their names before given instruction to ensure that they are listening to you (e.g: Sofia write the date)
  • Ensure face-to-face communication: it is important that the child looks at your face while speaking to him, always getting down to the child's level
  • Use simple language and clear instructions:  ensure to repeat the word more than once, so the child gets used to the words and be easy to memorize it
  • Talk calmly and slowly: a child with DLD needs to process words and orders given to them
  • Give the child time to respond: Children with DLD may need more time to process information and translate it orally
  • Use symbols: provide visual aids and nonverbal communication to introduce new words and concepts. Visual timetables can help them to plan and organize their daily life activities, provide a checklist to tick off the task that is achieved
  • Encourage the child to communicate: by using verbal and non-verbal communication ways 
  • Check that the child understands you: ask the child to repeat the instructions in their own words
  • Help them to learn different skills: for example, playing games to learn taking turns, and listening to others.
  • Give specific instructions – e.g. 'put your pencil on the table'
  • Create ‘role play area':  to practice using language in different events, e.g: set up a supermarket where the child practice writing a list of shopping and try to memorize it/ or pretending that the child is a patient, to practice expressing how does he/she feel 
  • Praise their effort: promoting the child to gain confidence while speaking

Signs of Developmental language disorders
Signs of Developmental language disorders

Speech and language therapy for Developmental Language Disorders

Speech and language therapists are playing an important role in defining and managing DLD. The individual needs of the child are changeable according to each stage, as an example from foundation stage to primary school, from primary school to secondary school, and from secondary to post–16 provision.

The aims of speech-language therapists are: 

  • Assessing and identifying children with DLD 
  • Develop the language abilities for children with DLD 
  • Teach children with DLD techniques and strategies to minimize the communication difficulties and to assist them to access their learning and social environment
  • Supporting parents and other participants to deal with children having DLD
  • Providing therapies in 1:1 sessions and small groups for children with DLD.
  • Supporting schools to create an environment that helps the children with DLD to learn and be involved in the education and social setting
  • Helping teachers and parents to use different communication styles that help children with DLD to understand and develop their language skills. 
  • Helping teachers to set friendly classrooms to help children with DLD to communicate with it.
  • Raising awareness, educating, and training other professionals in identifying and working with children with DLD.