Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): Why Your Child May Be Struggling to Communicate

developmental language disorder dld

Takeaway: Many children have trouble learning how to speak and communicate fluently. But for most, this is a phase they outgrow. With DLD, a child’s brain develops differently, making it harder for her to learn and use language, through school and into adulthood. Thankfully, though, there are tools and techniques you can use to help your child adapt.

Isn’t it frustrating when you want to say something but can’t find the right words? Imagine how much worse it is for a child.

We all want to be a part of other peoples’ lives. But to do this, we have to be able to communicate. So, it’s maddeningly frustrating for a child when she has trouble being understood, or when she can’t understand what her friends and family are saying. She might try to express herself but finds her thinking muddled and just gives up. Or she might forget a few key words, which interrupts her flow of conversation. She may also often need instructions to be simplified or repeated. These are all signs that she’s finding language difficult.

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is one possible reason for this struggle with language.

It’s a condition where a child’s brain develops differently than other children her age, making it harder to learn and use language. So, her sentences end up being much less elaborate than her peers’ — for example, saying, ‘Him hitting’ instead of, ‘That man is hitting the nail with a heavy hammer.’ And she might also have trouble understanding what other people are telling her. Many children struggle with language, but with DLD, these struggles go on through school and into adult life. Thankfully, though, there are things we can do to help.

DLD is part of a cluster of related terms that healthcare professionals use.

Here’s how it fits into a web of speech and language challenges.

  • Language disorder: This is the term used for any children struggling significantly with language.
  • Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): This is a specific type of language disorder that occurs when children’s brains develop differently to their peers. Children without DLD might still have a language disorder, but for some other reason like a brain injury, a genetic condition, intellectual disability, etc.
  • Speech, Language, and Communication Needs (SLCN): This is an umbrella term for children with one of many conditions — e.g., language disorder, DLD, speech and sound disorder, voice disorder, fluency disorders, etc.

Problems with language start showing up in children as young as 1 year old.

Just because your child misses some language milestones, it doesn’t mean she has DLD. But it’s worth being able to spot when she needs some extra attention.

  • With 1-year-olds: They don’t try to communicate with you (for example, pointing or making ‘talking’ noises), they don’t look at you when you say their name, and they don’t yet understand commonly-used words like ‘hello.’
  • At 1.5 years: They can’t yet follow instructions like, ‘Give Teddy a hug’ and still have problems understanding phrases like ‘all gone!’
  • At 2 years: They have a limited vocabulary (less than 30-40 words), can’t put words together (e.g., ‘hello mummy’), and you find it hard to understand what they say.
  • At 3 years: They don’t speak in sentences (not even 3-5 word ones), can’t ask ‘Who? What? Where?’ questions, and can’t differentiate between opposites like ‘big’ and ‘little.’ You still find it hard to understand what they say.
  • At 4 years: They can’t link sentences together, can’t yet talk about the past (what they ate yesterday, for example) or the future (where they’ll be going tomorrow), and people outside the family can’t always understand what they’re saying.
  • At 5 years: They might still have problems speaking in full, grammatically-correct sentences. They might also find it hard to learn new words or pick up words related to abstract concepts like ‘time’. And they might still struggle to understand what you say.

All children with DLD struggle with one or more of these aspects of language, but to different extents.

  1. Making speech ‘sounds.’ Spoken words are a mix of sounds, so if a child can’t tell these sounds apart, she’ll have problems communicating. For example, if she can’t tell ‘t’ and ‘k’ sounds apart, then ‘cat’ could become ‘tat’. Many children struggle with speech sounds but usually master them by about 4 or 5. With DLD, these issues stay on much longer.
  2. Understanding words: A child with DLD often has trouble learning new words and understanding how they relate to each other. So, she’ll often have a limited vocabulary and not quite understand many of the words she uses.
  3. Putting sentences together: DLD makes it harder to structure sentences properly. So, a child with DLD may say, ‘Him like cycling,’ instead of, ‘He says he likes cycling to school every day.’ She might also find it hard to understand the subject and object in sentences. For example, with ‘Peter laughed at Jane,’ she might not be able to process who was laughing at whom.
  4. Making conversation: She might find it hard to have conversations with her friends. For example, she could get confused by whatever they’re talking about or not pick up cues that it’s her turn to speak. She might also struggle to put thoughts together in sequence (like you’d do when telling a story) or understand anything that isn’t literal (e.g., metaphors and figures of speech).

Here’s how you can encourage a child who struggles with language.

  1. Model good speech rather than pointing out mistakes. So, if she says, ‘Bid ball’, you can help her along by saying, ‘Wow! That is a big ball! Let’s play with the big ball!” Notice how you’re focusing on the general idea of what she’s saying, rather than interrupting the flow by saying that she’s wrong.
  2. Help her talk slower by using this same ‘modelling’ tactic. Instead of telling her to slow down, speak slower yourself.
  3. Start stacking ideas together to help her come up with more complex sentences. If she says, ‘I run home,’ you can reply, ‘Yes! You ran home from school today!’ Get her to narrate her day, telling you about all the fun stuff that happened. Talk about the things that excite her and she’s much more likely to want to engage.
  4. Give her listening practice: Go on a ‘listening’ walk (what can she hear? A car, a dog barking, a bird tweeting?), teach her simple rhymes, have her follow instructions to make something fun (e.g., a paper aeroplane), or play ‘I Spy.’

Encouraging your child is the first step, but for persistent language problems, consider contacting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have educational psychologists and speech & language therapists who can help.

  • Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356


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