Opinion: Developmental language disorder - what you need to know

In honour of DLD Awareness Day, Professor Courtenay Norbury (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) and her colleague explain the challenges facing children with developmental language disorder and calls for teachers and schools to use more techniques to help pupils.

Tom is in Year 6 and has developmental language disorder, or DLD.

He is described as being a caring child with a real sense of fun, but school staff and his family have concerns about his progress in learning and worry about how he will cope when he transfers to secondary school.

Tom has a poor perception of himself as a learner and struggles to see that he can be successful. He often finds it hard to follow directions and can disrupt other pupils in the classroom.

Tom’s social group outside of school often engage in risky activities and Tom is known to youth offending services.

The impact of developmental language disorder

For a long time, his DLD went unrecognised, as concern focused on Tom’s behaviour and relationships with others.

It eventually became apparent, however, that he has significant difficulties using and understanding language and his oral language skills are more like that of a Year 3 pupil. As a result, he gets involved in situations he does not fully understand, and can’t use words to negotiate his way out of trouble.

He cannot read, and when his Sendco asked him about his favourite film, he replied: "I don’t really listen to the words they say, I just look at the pictures."

How many pupils have DLD?

How many pupils like Tom are there in schools? This scenario is more common than you might think.

Approximately 10 per cent of children - or two in every classroom - struggle to develop language and may have DLD. These children are at increased risk of poor academic, mental health and employment outcomes, representing a significant cost to personal and societal wellbeing.

What do we know about DLD and schools?

The Surrey Communication and Language in Education Study (SCALES), has been investigating the impact of DLD for 10 years now. We have followed a large cohort of children from Reception to Year 9. Two things really stand out about our findings.

First, children with DLD show a parallel rate of language growth relative to their peers throughout primary school. The good news here is that even children with complex and severe language and learning challenges make steady progress over time. To us, this demonstrates the important role that schools play in providing an enriching and stable language learning environment.

The more challenging implication is that narrowing the language gap is very difficult, and DLD is incredibly persistent. Early identification and intervention is important, but even excellent classroom practice, delivered by well-informed teaching staff, coupled with short-term interventions, is unlikely to be enough.

Secondary school can be especially challenging for young people with DLD as the language of the curriculum tends to be more grammatically complex, full of abstract and often ambiguous vocabulary, and heavily reliant on good literacy skills. In addition, social relationships and the feelings associated with them become more nuanced, requiring more flexible communication skills.

How does DLD impact emotional language?

The second insight from SCALES is the role of language in developing emotional understanding of self and others. We’ve recently published a study demonstrating that children’s language skills in Year 1 predict how accurately children are able to recognise emotional expressions in Year 6.

This is important as the ability to rapidly interpret emotional cues helps to guide our behaviour - if someone looks angry we tread more cautiously than if she displays a warm and inviting smile.

In addition, language is an important tool for regulating emotion - for example, to think about how unpleasant events might affect us in the future, or to problem-solve ways of dealing with stress and anxiety.

Children with DLD are at increased risk of poor mental health in adolescence, and may need support to access services that rely heavily on "talking therapies".

How can schools help?

Teachers and school staff play a vital role in creating a culture that supports children with DLD. For example, an environment where it is good to ask questions, ask for repetition or to say "I don’t understand" is supportive of all children, not just those with DLD.

School staff can model what to say in tricky situations and rehearse this in "safe" spaces within the classroom. Teachers can use skilled questioning techniques to challenge right answers as well as wrong responses, to externalise and make explicit the thought processes of strong thinkers and communicators as a model for all.

What next?

We need evidence-based interventions that are conceived and co-produced by both researchers and practitioners to ensure that school funds are allocated wisely. The educator’s role in helping to create this database of knowledge is vital.

Even in, or especially during, these trying times, we need schools to be able to engage with researchers so that we may help children with DLD flourish.

This article was first published in Times Educational Supplement on 16 October.


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