Developmental language disorder (previously known as specific language impairment) is diagnosed when a student has persistent language problems that continue into school age. Difficulties with the comprehension and use of words and sentences to convey information and ideas are common for these students. Problems can occur in different modalities of language: spoken, written and/or signed. At school entry, approximately two children in every class of thirty students are considered to experience a language disorder significant enough to impinge on their academic progress. However, language difficulties often go undetected and may not be evident unless the student’s receptive (understanding of) and expressive (use of) language is assessed formally. These students typically require additional help beyond targeted classroom support and should be referred to a speech pathologist for more detailed evaluation and intervention tailored to their specific needs.

Developmental language disorder can be defined as:

difficulties with language development that endure into middle childhood and beyond, with a significant impact on everyday social interactions, emotional well-being, behavioural regulation and educational progress. It is characterised by difficulties understanding and using words and sentences to express meanings, which are unlikely to resolve without specialist support.

It is recognised that developmental language disorder emerges in the course of development, rather than being acquired or associated with a known biomedical cause. However, a language disorder may occur as part of a more complex pattern of impairments that require a specific intervention pathway (e.g. language disorder associated with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, or cerebral palsy).

Developmental language disorder across childhood

Children with developmental language disorder (and language disorder associated with other conditions) will show some or many of the difficulties listed below. They may not display all of these characteristics.

  • Poor use of gestures
  • Cannot follow simple directions
  • Difficulties naming objects or pictures
  • Speaks using only two or three word phrases
  • Has trouble putting words together into sentences
  • Reduced use of action words e.g. “doggy run”, “push car”
  • Difficulties learning songs and rhymes
  • Limited engagement in imaginative play
  • Speech that can be hard to understand
  • Difficulties knowing how to take turns when talking with others
  • Difficulties learning the alphabet
  • Difficulties remembering and following spoken instructions
  • Difficulties understanding what is heard or read
  • Trouble retrieving specific words i.e. uses ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’
  • Difficulties in telling or retelling a coherent story
  • Incorrect grammar when speaking or writing
  • May look around and copy others’ actions or written work
  • Difficulties with blending and segmenting of sounds in words, resulting in reading and spelling weaknesses
  • Poor turn-taking in conversation
  • Misinterprets jokes or the point of what was meant
  • Difficulties following playground rules
  • Limited knowledge of word meanings
  • Relies on simple words to express themselves
  • Word finding difficulties
  • Provides too much or too little information in speaking or writing
  • Trouble forming grammatically correct sentences
  • Difficulty understanding spoken or written information
  • Lack of detail in written expression
  • Avoids or may have difficulties starting class work or homework
  • Difficulties paying attention
  • Difficulties knowing how and when to use language in social situations (e.g. banter with peers)
  • Poor acquisition of academic skills across the curriculum