By Caitlin Malli (she/her), speech language pathologist, Saanich
There is a hidden disability that you may see in as many as two children in every classroom. This disability is called developmental language disorder (DLD). People with DLD have difficulties with language without another biomedical condition, like autism or moderate intellectual disability. DLD emerges in childhood but is a persistent, life-long condition. DLD has a genetic and biological basis, such as subtle brain differences. These risks can be mediated by environmental input.
While the language challenges experienced by students with DLD may not always be as obvious as other language impairments, such as speech sound disorders, studies estimate that 7–10% of children present with a language disorder with-out a known cause (i.e., DLD). This could be as many as 40,000 students in the BC public school system! As students with DLD do not “sound” different, they are not always identified prior to school or in early school years, continuing with a “hidden disability.”
With DLD being so common, it is important for educators to talk about it in schools, learn more about its effects, and learn how to identify students with DLD early on. Until recently, there was no agreed-upon term to describe DLD. Instead, there were several different terms used to describe this condition, including receptive-expressive language challenges, language processing difficulties, speech language impairment, or a language delay. Developmental language disorder is the term selected by a multinational and multidisciplinary consensus study.1 Through common terminology internationally and across professions, we can better raise awareness about this condition and advocate for supports and resources.
In the classroom, children with language difficulties may struggle with learning, literacy, social relationships, mental health, and behaviour. Each student with DLD will have a different profile of language strengths and stretches (see Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder’s infographic below). Awareness of DLD characteristics is especially important for children with mild language challenges. Just because a student can hold a conversation does not mean their language is “fine.” Subtle challenges with learning new vocabulary, following complex directions, and applying language to academics may also indicate a language disorder. Potential difficulties that suggest a student could benefit from further observation or assessment include:
- Shorter and less complex sentences.
- Difficulty organizing ideas.
- Limited vocabulary/ use of non-specific language (e.g., that, stuff, thing).
- Difficulty interacting successfully with other students.
- May appear to understand and then get lost in multistep classroom routines or they may not successfully follow routines at all.
- Off-topic or incorrect responses to questions.
- Challenges developing literacy skills at the same rate as their peers. Although DLD affects spoken language, individuals with DLD are six times more likely to have reading difficulties, six times more likely to have significant spelling problems, and four times more likely to struggle with math.2
- DLD occurs across languages. For English language learner (ELL) students, talk to caregivers to look for persistent errors in all languages.
As a speech language pathologist (SLP), I work with many students with DLD every day. A diagnosis of DLD is most commonly provided through speech language pathology assessment. While direct support from an SLP is crucial, one-on-one support time is limited in schools. Speech language pathologists can provide support for students with DLD in collaboration with teachers to improve language and literacy skills. My focus for the past few years has been working with teachers in my schools to develop tier-one supports for all students in the classroom, including students with DLD.
Alisa Russell, a Grade 3/4 teacher in one of my schools, beautifully described the benefits of this approach in a classroom. She said, “Detecting disorders or challenges in learning for children is hard and time consuming. When you know a child is struggling, you need to work with as many knowledgeable experts as you can. It takes a village to diagnose the barriers for struggling learners.” Collaboration and awareness among professionals, including SLPs, are crucial to identifying and supporting students with DLD.
Together, Alisa and I brainstormed whole-class oral language and literacy strategies “meant for one but accessible by everyone.” Using visual and kinesthetic cues helped students learn vowel spelling patterns by providing additional supports to connect mouth position to the sound produced. Alisa created “Ready-Do-Done” visuals, to help students organize their resources (Get Ready), plan the sequential steps (Do), and picture the end result (Done) in multistep directions. Planning how to pace and present lessons at a level accessible to all students allowed Alisa to include all students in classroom activities.
One of the largest projects that Alisa and I have completed together was to implement a school oral narrative language program through grant funding. Alisa and Melissa Bourdon, the teacher-librarian at our school, taught the first phase of the program, which targets foundational story elements, such as character, setting, and take off (a different way of describing the problem or initiating event of a story). The lessons are simple and repetitive with many examples and icons to illustrate the concepts, all useful strategies for children with language disorders or learning challenges. Alisa integrated hands-on opportunities to demonstrate learning with the program. Through these structured learning opportunities, all students improved their narrative abilities. Although written language was not explicitly targeted, these improvements transferred to their written language output, as oral language is a foundational skill for literacy development.
Building awareness of the term developmental language disorder in schools and in the public is crucial to help children get identified and receive supports. Early screening of language and literacy in Kindergarten aids identification. If you have students in your classroom who you are wondering about, reach out to your school SLP to ask questions. They can provide you with strategies, suggestions, and a potential assessment if needed. General strategies to support language learning in the classroom include:
Repetition—research suggests that students struggling to learn language need to hear a new word 36 times to remember it.
Use multimodal supports—students with DLD have challenges with oral language. Visual supports allow them to compensate for these difficulties and join in classroom activities. Use visual supports, such as visual schedules, Ready-Do-Done charts, and gestures. Peer models are also helpful.
Explicitly teach language structures and vocabulary—teach written and oral language structures in the classroom. Explicitly teach phonics patterns, narrative structure, and grammatical rules, such as suffixes or prefixes.
Watch for non-literal language, like idioms and metaphors—common instructions, such as “keep your eyes on the board,” may be confusing for children with DLD, as their literal interpretation is different than the intended meaning.
Consult with your SLP—SLPs are specifically trained to identify, diagnose, and provide intervention for language and literacy disorders.
Visit dldandme.org to learn more about DLD and to find resources.
Watch and share Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder’s video by visiting qrco.de/bcxnMz.