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What is Developmental Language Disorder?

Posted on: August 17, 2023

Those with developmental language disorder (DLD) have ongoing difficulties understanding and/or using spoken language. It’s a type of speech, language and communication need that significantly impacts how they communicate.

Language, from verbal to written to signed, is a skill we use to communicate with each other and understand the world around us. Most of us use language to share ideas or feelings without giving these moments a second thought. Yet, that’s not the case for people with DLD.

According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, DLD affects about two children in every class of 30 across the UK. However, it has fluctuated between different names — such as “Specific Language Impairment” — which adds confusion and complexity to those seeking help and resources.

To improve research efforts and help those affected, an international panel of experts chose “developmental language disorder” as the official term.

With the number of children affected by DLD, it’s critical that more people learn how to assist and guide those who have difficulty using and/or understanding language.

How is DLD diagnosed? How is DLD diagnosed?

Unlike some language disorders, developmental language disorder refers to consistent language development difficulties that impede everyday life but that aren’t connected to a known biological cause or brain injury.

It’s important to distinguish between “late talkers” and those with DLD. Some children under five years old may start speaking later although they understand the language that’s spoken to them and often “catch up” with others their age. On the other hand, those with DLD significantly struggle with language comprehension and are less likely to resolve themselves later. If a child has ongoing difficulties with language ability past five and a half years old, a professional should be consulted for a possible DLD diagnosis.

Furthermore, a young child with DLD may also struggle with attention, behavior, executive functioning, peer problems, motor skills, social interaction and emotional difficulties. Some may have additional diagnoses alongside DLD, such as ADHD or dyslexia. All of these factors must be considered when engaging and guiding those with DLD.

This short animation was created by RADLD for DLD Awareness Day 2021 and explains some of the difficulties children with DLD face and signs for teachers to look out for.

What are the causes and symptoms of DLD in children? What are the causes and symptoms of DLD in children?

A commonly asked question is: “Why do some children have DLD?

Unfortunately, despite research into DLD, there isn’t an answer to why some children have DLD and others don’t.

However, identifying any language difficulty sooner, rather than later can help those affected with DLD in the long term through early interventions and in-depth programs.

Moreover, those who struggle with DLD can have a number of symptoms. For example, learning new words may be more difficult with language delay. Similarly, they may not be able to express their thoughts clearly in spoken language — perhaps, mixing up word structure or tenses and grammar. Difficulty reading and writing, mispronunciations and/or misunderstanding language-based jokes can be an ongoing struggle.

What roles do teachers play in supporting a child with DLD? What roles do teachers play in supporting a child with DLD?

The first step to helping children with DLD is to recognize that there’s a language problem and then to reach out to professionals for help. A speech and language therapist and/or teacher with DLD expertise can both be huge resources for children with DLD and can help map out a plan to assist the young child.

Some helpful ways to support a child with DLD in the classroom include:

  • Using simple uncomplicated language to communicate with them. (Repeat words, as needed.)
  • Allowing time for them to process words and verbally express their ideas.
  • Utilising visuals alongside spoken information to teach.

Getting additional help, such as language therapy for DLD in early childhood has been shown to improve a child’s speech and language learning potential, though many children with DLD will always have difficulties with language development.

DLD and Me Book Cover

A great resource is Anna Sowerbutts and Amanda Finer’s DLD and Me: Supporting Children and Young People with Developmental Language Disorder, where they discuss the ways in which developmental language disorder affects children between the ages of 9 and 16 — including a 12-week program to help engage with them and work on their strengths.

The book was inspired by the authors’ own experiences working in schools with children diagnosed with DLD. Previously, both authors had spent years working with autistic children focused on helping them understand their own diagnosis. Noticing that the equivalent didn’t exist in current DLD-focused sessions, Sowerbutts and Finer worked together to create this practical workbook and fill that urgent gap within DLD resources.

This practical workbook guides professionals through an easy-to-follow, 12-week program specifically designed to help young people effectively self-advocate and understand their own needs. Each week’s session is built on the four pillars of the book, which are to help individuals:

  • Know themselves.
  • Know their needs.
  • Identify strategies to manage those needs.
  • Communicate those needs to others.

Each session plan is an hour long and includes activities for follow-up sessions and homework activities with which the young person’s family can get involved.

Although there are 12 sessions, this intervention can be run weekly, monthly or “as a more intensive holiday group,” according to the authors. Each session can also be adjusted to fit a shorter or longer timeframe — just reduce or add to the number of activities in each session.

Besides the session plans for therapists and professionals, the workbook includes:

  • Visual resources alongside sessions, available to copy and download online.
  • Homework sheets to engage family members and keep them informed.
  • Information sheets and training plans for parents.
  • Outcome measures to evaluate progress throughout the program.

The book was created for children ages 9 to 16, but the authors do note that this doesn’t have to refer to chronological age — instead, suitability can be determined by each child’s own maturity and capabilities.

You'll find the full 12-week program in Anna Sowerbutts and Amanda Finer’s DLD and Me: Supporting Children and Young People with Developmental Language Disorder. You can also hear the authors explain the program in more detail in this video. 

DLD in comparison DLD in comparison

Although DLD, dyslexia and autism can all affect a child's communication and learning, each of these conditions presents unique challenges and has distinctive characteristics. It's crucial to understand these differences to provide the most effective support and intervention.

DLD vs dyslexia

DLD and dyslexia may seem similar as both can impact a child's academic performance and communication abilities. However, they’re fundamentally different.

DLD primarily affects a child's spoken language abilities. Children with DLD often struggle to understand complex sentences and have difficulties expressing their thoughts and feelings effectively. For example, a child with DLD may have trouble answering questions like, "What did you do at school today?" They might also struggle to follow multi-step instructions.

On the other hand, dyslexia primarily affects reading and writing skills. Children with dyslexia often have difficulties with phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. This difficulty can lead to challenges with spelling, reading quickly, writing words, "sounding out" words in the head, pronouncing words when reading aloud and understanding what one reads. For instance, a child with dyslexia might read the word "stop" as "pots" or might have trouble distinguishing between similar-looking letters like 'b' and 'd'.

While both DLD and dyslexia can affect a child's ability to succeed in school, the specific areas of difficulty and strategies used for support vary significantly.

DLD vs autism

Autistic children might also struggle with communication. However, autism involves broader issues , including difficulties with social interaction and restrictive or repetitive patterns of behavior. For example, an autistic child might have trouble understanding non-verbal cues, like facial expressions or body language, which is not typically a characteristic of DLD.

Is  DLD a lifelong condition? Is DLD a lifelong condition?

DLD is a neurodevelopmental condition, which means it emerges in early childhood and persists into adulthood. It's not something that children simply outgrow; instead, the manifestations of DLD may evolve and change as individuals mature and develop.

So, the sooner DLD is recognized and addressed, the sooner children can receive the help they need to improve their language skills. Early intervention services might include targeted speech and language therapy, additional educational support and individualized learning plans — all aimed to foster language development.

For example, speech and language therapists can assist by working with the child to build their vocabulary, improve sentence structure and enhance conversational skills. In school, educators can use inclusive teaching methods to accommodate a child's language difficulties, ensuring that they can fully engage in class. Parents also play a critical role by fostering a supportive home environment, using strategies like simple, clear sentences and encouraging their children to express themselves.

Importantly, learning strategies that incorporate visuals and non-verbal methods can be particularly effective for those with DLD, as these individuals often find visual and tactile information easier to process than spoken language. In essence, while DLD is a lifelong condition, with the right support, individuals can lead successful and fulfilling lives.

How can you support your child with DLD at home? How can you support your child with DLD at home?

Supporting a child with DLD is a comprehensive endeavor, extending beyond school and therapy sessions. Creating a nurturing and supportive environment at home is equally important. Here are some strategies on how you can aid your child with DLD outside of school and at home:

  • Facilitate language comprehension: Make it a routine to read with your child, discussing the stories and the meanings of new words. Encourage them to ask questions and share their thoughts about what they've read. You can also use everyday activities as opportunities to develop their language skills. For example, while cooking or cleaning, describe what you're doing and introduce new words.
  • Promote effective communication: Speak slowly and clearly, using short, simple sentences. Encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings, giving them plenty of time to respond. Avoid interrupting or finishing their sentences for them.
  • Strengthen social interactions: Role-playing can be a useful tool for teaching social skills. Practice different scenarios, such as asking a friend to play or handling conflicts. Discuss the importance of taking turns in conversation and expressing empathy towards others.

DLD can sometimes make it difficult for children to interact with their peers. They might struggle with understanding complex language, following group conversations, or expressing their thoughts and feelings clearly. This can affect their friendships and relationships, possibly leading to feelings of isolation or frustration.

However, with your understanding and support, your child can learn to navigate these social challenges. Encourage them to participate in social activities, such as playdates or team sports, where they can practice their communication skills. Reassure them that everyone struggles sometimes and that it's okay to ask for help. Supporting Children With DLD by Kate Kempton is a picture book and guidebook written to illuminate the child's perspective and provide parents, educators and caretakers with the tools they need to understand and address the unique needs of children with DLD.

How can we better understand and support DLD? How can we better understand and support DLD?

DLD is most commonly identified when a child begins to speak in sentences or when they start school. During these early years, a child with DLD may have more difficulty understanding and using language compared to their peers. However, these early challenges don’t dictate the rest of their lives. Most children with DLD — when provided with the right support and interventions — can greatly improve their language abilities over time.

The key to helping those with DLD is to bring greater awareness and knowledge to the community about this communication disorder. By doing this, parents, educators and professionals can recognize the signs sooner and get children the help they need right away. DLD is a lifelong condition but when combined with early intervention, it can become more manageable and improve the lives, mental health, language skill, learning capabilities, social understanding and more of those affected.

For more resources, explore our vast and comprehensive collection of educational literature and resources for developmental language disorder.