developmental language disorder in the classroom

Guide on Developmental Language Disorder in The Classroom

Posted on
September 29, 2023
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Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is one of the most common developmental disorders. However, research shows that there is limited awareness and knowledge about developmental language disorder in the classroom. This is an issue because DLD can significantly hinder a child's learning progress and academic outcomes if not recognized and dealt with accordingly.

What is DLD?

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a language disorder without a known biomedical aetiology. It is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, signifying that its onset occurs during one's developmental period. Current statistics show that it affects around 7% of the population.

Symptoms of DLD include:

  • poor phonological awareness
  • difficulty with the production and comprehension of syntax
  • word finding difficulties
  • restricted vocabulary
  • pragmatic difficulties
  • difficulty processing sequences of utterances
  • short term verbal memory.

As a consequence, an individual's ability to communicate is affected.

Evidence has shown that DLD persists into adulthood, but that its symptoms can improve with language intervention.

How does DLD present in the classroom?

Language is closely interwoven with learning, teaching, and assessment. Most importantly, language ability is not only needed in language arts subjects, but is a vital component across the whole curriculum. As a result, DLD difficulties can present themselves in the classroom in a number of ways:

  • comprehending and following instructions: it may seem like the child with DLD is lost and does not understand what they need to do, or they may not follow instructions at all
  • engagement: when being asked a question, children with DLD may give off-topic or incorrect responses
  • literacy: children with DLD face reading and writing difficulties, which are an essential part across the whole curriculum - if not dealt with, the student will not be able to fully engage with the subjects the classroom, not demonstrate their knowledge through assessments
  • story-telling: children with DLD have a difficulty in retelling stories or understanding its components (e.g. exposition, conflict, climax, resolution)
  • ideas: children with DLD also have a difficulty in organising ideas and voicing their opinions or thoughts
  • social skills: not only is language central in the classroom in order to learn, it is also a means of interacting with others - children with DLD often have trouble communicating with their peers and making meaningful connections
  • taking initiative: children with DLD often avoid activities that require cooperation in the classroom (e.g. classroom discussions), and lack assertion as well as responsibility

How does DLD affect the classroom?

Language is at the heart of one's ability to communicate with others. This is why it is hard for children with DLD to interact with their peers, as well as teachers. Due to this, children with DLD have been found to struggle with emotional regulation, behavioural problems, as well as mental health issues.

When it comes to interacting with peers, children with DLD have been found to do so far less than typically developing children. Although the desire to communicate is there, children with DLD either feel to anxious regarding their language ability and making themselves vulnerable to critique amongst peers, or they lack the necessary social skills to engage in a conversation due to inexperience. As a result, children with DLD often face isolation and exclusion, having less friends, being left out of play, and preferring adult interactions.

Not only is it harder for children with DLD to make meaningful connections with their peers, but also with their teachers. It has been found that teacher-child closeness is related to teacher to teacher perceptions of classroom learning behaviour. Therefore, teachers who are not aware of DLD might view children with DLD as not wanting to cooperate or follow instructions, rather than recognising their disability, and may have negative predispositions towards them. Such attitude can have negative effects on the child, and research shows that the quality of teacher-child relationships can have lasting effects on the child's social and cognitive outcomes in the future.

What does a language disorder look like in the classroom?

Language disorders may not be as obvious as other disabilities. Oftentimes, DLD is characterised as a hidden disability, because children with DLD do not sound different (e.g. unlike children with speech sound disorders). Furthermore, not all children with DLD face the same difficulties, or they might have similar difficulties, but on different levels of intensity. For example, one child with DLD might not be able to interact at all, while another might be able to hold a conversation. This, however, does not mean, that that child will not suffer greatly in other aspects of learning, such as following complex directions. That is why it is important to be aware of DLD symptoms, in order to recognise them in children with mild language challenges.

How do you teach students with DLD?

Teachers can help students with DLD immensely by adjusting the curriculum in numerous different ways:

  • simple language: use explicit language (i.e. try to avoid ambiguous terms or sentences open to interpretation), avoid complex sentences, break down instructions into smaller parts
  • visual support: visual aids can provide significant assistance to children with DLD (e.g. images, posters, diagrams, charts, educational apps)
  • repetition: repeating instructions, concepts and words can help children with DLD to better understand what is being conveyed to them
  • body language: we do not only communicate with speech, but with non-verbal communication as well - you can incorporate gestures and body language to support communication and provide additional context
  • additional time: children with DLD may need more time to process questions, instructions, and what is expected from them - therefore, they may need extra time in examinations and assessments
  • peer support: educate other students on the symptoms of DLD and provide time for communication and peer interaction
  • collaboration: it s important to talk to the child's parents and speech therapist on a regular basis in order to tailor instruction to meet the specific needs of the child

Adolf, S. M., and Hogan, T. P. (2018) Understanding Dyslexia in the Context of Developmental Language Disorders. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49(1), 762-773.

Archibald, L. (n.d.) Supporting a Child with DLD in the Classroom. DLD and Me.

Bishop, D. V. M., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T., and the CATALISE-2 consortium (2017) Phase 2 of CATALISE: a multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study of problems with language development: Terminology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(10), 1068-1080.

Glasby, J., Graham, L. J., White, S. L. J., & Tancredi, H. (2022) Do teachers know enough about the characteristics and educational impacts of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) to successfully include students with DLD? Teaching and Teacher Education, 119, 1-10.

Malli, C. (May 17, 2022) Developmental language disorder in the classroom. BCTF.

Norbury, C. F., Gooch, D., Wray, C., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E., Vamvakas, G., and Pickles, A. (2016) The impact of nonverbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of language disorder: evidence from a population study. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(11), 1247-1257.

Rhoad-Drogalis, A., Justice, L. M., Sawyer, B. E., & O'Connell, A. A. (2017) Teacher-child relationships and classroom-learning behaviours of children with developmental language disorders. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 53(2), 324-338.

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