Mandy Grist, Speech and Language Advisor at children’s communication charity I CAN, sheds light on developmental language disorder – previously known as SLI

What do you know about developmental language disorder, also known as DLD? For many, the answer to this question would be – very little. Despite the fact that 2 children in every primary classroom will have DLD (7.6% of children), a wider understanding of the condition is in fact limited. As researcher Courtenay Norbury reflected: “developmental language disorder is probably the most common childhood condition you have never heard of”.

Previously known as specific language impairment (SLI), children and young people with DLD have persistent difficulties in understanding and/ or production of spoken language. The cause in most cases is unknown and there is no obvious reason for these difficulties, for example, there is no hearing problem or physical disability that explains them.

But why the name change? The term SLI has in recent times been felt to be somewhat ambiguous, and the belief was that confusion about the terminology has affected how children can access services, how it is identified and prioritised in schools and how research is funded. Consequently, Professor Dorothy Bishop led a consortium of researchers, clinical and education practitioners, policymakers and representatives from parent organisations to achieve consensus on a diagnostic term that was more meaningful to the wider public. The panel agreed on developmental language disorder (DLD) in place of SLI.

What does DLD mean for a child or young person?

A child can be diagnosed with DLD if their language difficulties are likely to carry on into adulthood if their difficulties impact significantly on their progress at school, or in everyday life and they are unlikely to catch up without help. DLD can look different in each child and can be complicated to understand because of this, and because the cause is unknown.

For a diagnosis of DLD, a child will often have difficulties understanding language, but they may also have difficulties putting their thoughts into words and sentences.

You may see the following characteristics:

  • They may have difficulty saying what they want to, even though they have ideas;
  • They may struggle to find the words they want to use;
  • They may talk in sentences but be difficult to understand;
  • They may sound muddled and it may be difficult to follow what they are saying. A child with DLD won’t necessarily sound like a younger child; instead, their speech might sound disorganised or unusual;
  • They may find it difficult to understand words and long instructions;
  • They may have difficulty remembering the words they want to say;
  • They may find it hard to join in and follow what is going on in the playground.

Children with DLD often struggle at school. This is because so much learning depends on being able to understand and use language. Children with DLD won’t just ‘pick up’ language; they will need to be taught language skills in a special way. They can do well, but they will need the right support in order to reach their full potential. This support will be from a speech and language therapist, along with other specialists like a language advisory teacher.

Children with DLD may struggle because they easily lose concentration as all their efforts are spent making sense of the language in instructions; it can be difficult to listen and work things out at the same time. These children can have difficulty learning new words and ideas and may struggle to keep up – by the time they have thought how to say an answer, the teacher has moved on to something else.

Supporting children with developmental language disorder

Common principles of support for children and young people with DLD include repeated exposure to new words and ideas. In a typical lesson, new ideas and words are introduced once or twice, however children with DLD need to hear and use them much more than this. They require spoken instructions to be broken down into simpler, shorter sentences and/ or for the spoken information to be presented in a visual way, for example using pictures or gestures. Whilst this extra processing time may help, it is important to remember that children with DLD won’t automatically interpret and understand new meanings. There are ‘rules’ in every language for how sounds are put together, how we learn what new words mean, grammatical rules for sentences, social rules for conversations. Unlike their peers, children with DLD will need these rules explicitly taught.

Good speech, language and communication skills are vital for learning and a clear predictor of children’s academic success and social and emotional well-being.

But, despite their difficulties with language, children with DLD can achieve well at school, both academically and socially. They just learn differently. Knowing their best learning style is, therefore, crucial to understanding how best to support them.

I CAN, the children’s communication charity, in partnership with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) are leading on Bercow: Ten Years On – a review of provision for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), including those children and young people with DLD. The report will provide information about the current landscape for children and young people with SLCN and make recommendations for future actions to ensure their needs are a high priority for the government. Get in touch with us to share your views and experiences.

If you are a parent or practitioner with concerns about a child’s speech, language and communication please call 0207 843 2544 to speak to one of I CAN’s speech and language therapists for information and advice.


Mandy Grist

Speech and Language Advisor



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