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What schools need to know about Developmental Language Disorder

When uncovering and addressing difficulties with developmental language disorder in primary school, speed is of the essence, writes Naomi Reed...

  • What schools need to know about Developmental Language Disorder

In the average class of 30 children having started primary school this autumn, two children will be affected by developmental language disorder.

Despite this disorder’s prevalence – it affects seven times more children than autism – it’s likely that many in the teaching profession will have never heard of it. Yet its impact can be both extensive and long-term, affecting the way in which children use and understand spoken language.

Easy to misinterpret

DLD is a hidden disability like dyslexia, and as such can often go unidentified or be misinterpreted. As a new cohort of children embark on the study of a new curriculum, accurately identifying their needs will be key to helping them be both understood and supported.

Take the child who often seems to have their head in the clouds, or doesn’t follow instructions in class. Perhaps this isn’t down to a lack of attention and concentration on their part. It’s possible that they’re not purposefully ignoring the teacher. If DLD is the issue, they may not actually understand what the teacher is asking and struggle to follow the flow of information.

What about the child who isn’t interacting well with other children in the class? There’s a chance that this may not be shyness, but rather a symptom of DLD that can manifest as a difficulty in joining in conversations, understanding jokes and comprehending non-literal language.

Communication issues such as these can cause children to miss the usual conversational cues and conventions that form the very essence of social interactions. Making friends – one of the cornerstones of a happy and settled school life – thus becomes a much more complex process.

As a consequence, DLD can be commonly misinterpreted as a form of challenging behaviour, with a child left confused by day-to-day school rules and structures and isolated within the playground. According to the ‘Bercow: Ten Years On’ report, 81% of children with emotional and behavioural disorders also have significant unidentified communication needs.

Long-lasting effects

Left unidentified, the challenges faced by children with DLD will be far-reaching. Language skills are crucial for accessing higher level, more abstract learning concepts. If a child doesn’t have an effective internal dialogue, for example, then they’ll struggle to work out a maths problem by talking it through in their head.

Planning and compiling a narrative becomes similarly problematic, causing children to struggle at the very first step of a literacy task. Research by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists bears this out, showing that pupils with DLD obtain lower academic and vocational qualifications, and leave education significantly earlier than their peers.

If DLD isn’t addressed at primary school then these issues will follow the child into adulthood, impacting upon their mental health and wellbeing. The Royal College has further found that a third of children with untreated communication needs will go on to develop subsequent mental health problems.

Suspect DLD?

Despite its prevalence and impact, DLD can be tough to identify by teaching staff and SENCos, but there are definite clues. If a child demonstrates some of the behaviours described above, and tends towards using more functional language over sophisticated concepts, there may be an issue. Think of the child who might say, ‘Doing the thing with the water,’ rather than ‘Pouring the water’ or ‘Using the watering can.’

In other cases, children with DLD may find it difficult to retell a simple narrative. The pupil who often can’t describe what they did at the weekend, or what they got up to during the school holidays could potentially have DLD.

Providing help straight away

The waiting time to access speech and language therapy services can vary across the UK, but early identification and intervention is a key predictor in closing the gap for pupils with DLD.

That’s one of the reasons why we’ve teamed up with GL Assessment to develop a simple screening tool and interventions resource book called WellComm Primary, which can be used with all children in a class to identify those at risk of having DLD. It ensures that if there are any suspicions, work can begin immediately on helping struggling students develop their vocabulary, grammar, narrative and social skills while a referral is processed.

Using prompts and visual material, such as word webs, can help a child get the name of something right and then start building the new word into their conversations. Use of symbols, task plans and visual timetables can further support pupils who experience difficulty with following instructions and retaining verbal information.

We’ve found that giving pupils choices when asking them to narrate something can also help, as it’s a useful way of demonstrating the language a pupil might need if they get stuck. If a child struggles to explain what they did at the weekend or during an activity, teachers can provide them with suggestions and options: ‘Did you stay in or did you go out this weekend?’ ‘Did you complete the worksheet about telling the time, or the worksheet about days of the week?’ This gives the child a chance to get started with their story and structure their ideas.

Another way of offering support to children with DLD is to pre-teach the vocabulary they’ll need before starting an activity. Word webs work well here, as DLD sufferers often find it demanding to listen to new vocabulary, remember it and store it efficiently in their memory. This can result in the pupil missing out on the learning that follows, since they’ll require longer to grasp the basic vocabulary making up a new topic or lesson. Using word webs or mind maps in this way, and devoting time to teaching the new vocabulary for a topic or lesson beforehand, will make a vast difference to a pupil’s learning.

Addressing DLD early on can ease pupils’ transition to primary school, help them catch up with their peers, equip them with the tools they’ll need to make friends and seriously improve their future life chances.


The WellComm primary toolkit

The WellComm Primary Toolkit helps schools quickly identify children aged six to 11 who may be struggling with their speech and language development and offers ideas for immediate support. It requires no specialist speech or language expertise to use, making it suitable for anyone working with children in school.

The assessment only takes 15 to 20 minutes per child, and once the screening is complete, interventions can be put in place immediately.

The Big Book of Ideas, which forms part of the WellComm Primary package, contains a series of fun activities and strategies that can be used to support children in their speech and language development.

The WellComm Primary Toolkit is priced at £449


Naomi Reed is a speech and language therapist at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, and one of the authors of GL Assessment’s new WellComm Primary Toolkit.

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