As we approach Developmental Language Disorder Awareness Day, Jules Daulby takes a look at this often lesser-known communication difficulty, its characteristics, and how best to support children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in the classroom.

Do you know what Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is? Perhaps you’ve heard of Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD)? If you have, you may think it’s dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, ADD, dyscalculia or Autistic Spectrum Condition/Disorder ASC/D, but not DLD.

I’ll prompt you again, Speech and Language Therapy (SALT). Oh, right yes, now I know what you mean. It’s speech problems, articulation? Or doesn’t SALT work with ASD and social communication? I think I may even have heard Complex Communication Difficulties used recently – what’s that?

So, developmental language disorder is a communication difficulty?

You can see the problem here… so many labels, many overlapping because it is the exception rather than the rule for difficulties to occur in isolation.

In the SEN Code of Practice communication difficulties are described as Speech, Communication and Language Needs – SCLN – this is a catch all phrase and can mean various forms of difficulties in communication.

But what is DLD?

“DLD (previously Language Learning Impairment – LLI/ Specific Language Impairment – SLI) is at least as common as dyslexia and more common than autism. It’s expected that there is one student with DLD in every classroom (Bishop 2014).”

For a rough comparison, a student with dyslexia will struggle with reading and writing. A DLD student will struggle with receptive and expressive language (understanding and speaking oral language). At DYT we acknowledge that ‘language is the precursor to literacy’ (Snowling), and students with DLD are more likely to have difficulties with reading comprehension and speaking and listening – all elements of literacy.

DLD is one of the most common learning difficulties in mainstream schools yet the least understood by teachers in both primary and secondary. It’s also research poor compared with dyslexia and autism which equates to less money spent on it. Here are our top tips for identifying and working with a student has who had DLD:

Identifying behaviour patterns

  • A student in mainstream with DLD may have basic functional literacy (although not always) so does not get picked up by screening tests. Once a comprehension test is given, it may become more apparent but as these students often appear ‘typical’ and read and write OK, it’s not until you begin chatting to them individually that you start to see where the difficulty lies.
  • A good indicator is to ask yourself, what have they just said to me? If you struggle to work it out, then there may be some language difficulties.
  • Other students with DLD are often described as not listening, staring out the window, blank, in their own world. He or she might be frustrating as they never do what you ask, they clearly weren’t paying attention as what they’ve written has absolutely nothing to do with the task you set. Worse still they haven’t written anything.
  • The student may get into trouble in group situations, outside at break time or in class. They look guilty, they couldn’t explain what had happened whereas the other student was able to fluently describe the incident.

Other Signs

  • May miss off grammatical endings to words ‘I play in the park’ rather than ‘I played in the park’
  • May get the order of words jumbled
  • May not use long and complex sentences (missing out conjunctions)
  • May mix up words e.g. tooken instead of taken
  • In playground they may not understand rules of the game or struggle in groups
  • May be a child who copies others a lot
  • May have beautiful handwriting but content bears little resemblance to task
  • May be quiet in the classroom
  • Has difficulties explaining what they want to say or struggle to understand
  • Struggles with verbal activities e.g. Circle Time
  • Might not get jokes

Here are some tips for teaching students with DLD:

  • Time, time and more time – schools go so fast – but allowing the student with DLD just a little more time to answer a question or complete a task will make a lot of difference. Introduce ‘Thinking Time’ (thanks to Wendy Lee for recommending this idea).
  • Visual visual visual – no, I’m not saying they’re a visual learner but when language is a barrier, using visual prompts can help to signpost activities for a student with DLD and trigger memory. By using images of the subject you’re discussing, this will help the student to link information and categorise for storing.
  • Modify language – for many students it is good to challenge them with extended vocabulary but for the student with DLD, it is the carrier language and phrasing which can confuse them. Try to concentrate on the knowledge you want them to learn and simplify the other bits of language.
  • Keep your sentences short and concise. Use simple language with the key words they need to learn.
  • Students with DLD may also need literal language, if they are struggling to cope with metaphor and idioms.
  • Break down instructions into small steps – you can get your TA to break tasks down with a tick box after each one. Chunk instructions and information.
  • Knowing that just because a student has nodded at you does not necessarily mean he or she has understood is a vital skill for the teacher of a student with DLD. Asking them to repeat back what they have they to do is a useful strategy (but allow them time to do this).
  • Being sympathetic to language overload and spending 5 minutes with them, perhaps explaining with spot images (like bullet points but small pictures) can make a difference.
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary – as a class or perhaps for a short time before lesson with a TA.

To learn more about DLD, access resources and find out how to raise awareness, visit RDLD.