Mary Hartshorne, I CAN Head of Evidence, explains how children with Developmental Language Disorder learn differently and hopes that a new term will help raise awareness of this condition

Last month in our I CAN staff meeting, I asked people from across departments to think back to before they joined I CAN. There were people from our fund raising department, the business team, our media and press teams – as well as finance and admin staff. I asked for a show of hands: ‘how many had heard of Autism before they joined?’ – most hands went up. ‘What about dyslexia?’ – again, most people. It was the same story for ADHD, for hearing impairment, dyspraxia and Tourette syndrome. So…what about when I said ‘Specific Language Impairment’. Just one hand went up.

Perhaps you are not surprised. But it does leave us with a problem – if no one knows about the condition, how will it attract services, how can it be identified and prioritised in school and how can research be funded? These were some of the reasons for a group of researchers and professionals to get together and carry out an international consensus activity which led to the changes in terminology. And so we have Developmental Language Disorder or DLD. You can read more about this terminology change here. As it is a change, we are gradually altering our written information so you may still see SLI here and there!

Children with DLD have persistent difficulties in the understanding and/or production of spoken language. The cause is usually unknown – in fact DLD emerges as children develop often before they start school, rather than being acquired or associated with a known cause.   

DLD is identified when:

  • language problems carry on into primary and secondary school, and beyond
  • there is a significant impact on everyday social interactions or educational progress
  • there are particular difficulties with understanding language…..
  • …..but usually problems across a number of aspects of language, such as being able to use sounds, words, sentences, being able to use language to communicate

So, why is it so important that children with DLD are identified and supported?

Well to start with, many children have DLD. The most recent study in primary schools found that 7.6% of children had DLD. That’s more children in fact than those who have autism, or ADHD, dyspraxia, hearing impairment. Secondly, because of the second bullet point in the list above – children with DLD have significant difficulties in everyday life and difficulties making progress at school. 

But the main reason is because with the right support, children with DLD can do well in school. They just learn differently.

One of the most important things to understand is that every child with DLD is different. One young adult described this well:

‘the way I cope with my speech and language difficulties is very specific to me. so it is not a case of ‘one size fits all’ – it’s important to find out what works with the individual….at first, because I was a visual learner, I thought everyone with speech and language needs was a visual learner. In fact I found some young people prefer to have things written down in printed text, so they can refer to it and see what comes next….’

But there are some common principles. Children DLD will often need help to process spoken information. They may:

However, JUST giving this additional processing time is not enough for deep learning. Children with DLD will often not pick up new meanings implicitly and need the rules for sounds, words, sentences, conversations explicitly taught.

There is a whole range of programmes which do this such as Cued Articulation which gives a hand gesture for each sound in English, and Word Aware which teaches new words by looking at their sounds and meaning. There are also approaches which teach how to balance turns in a conversation, or how to teach small grammatical words which help children understand concepts in Science

Everything we do in school involves language – children are taught, assessed and examined using language. They play, chat and gossip using fast paced spoken language. Grabbing every single moment to teach language is probably not possible – and it also risks stripping the joy out of communication! But with the understanding of adults around them and given the right support, children with DLD can pretty quickly pick up the strategies that help them the most.

We’re hoping that one of the impacts of Bercow: Ten Years On – a review of provision for children with SLCN, will result in more awareness of this significant group of children and young people. Telling us your experiences, will help us to do this. One of our success measures may well be an increase in the show of hands next time I ask who has heard of DLD!