How to help pupils with Developmental Language Disorder

Tomorrow is DLD Awareness Day and organisers are setting out to draw attention to this common condition that we're not talking about

developmental language disorder

Tomorrow (18 October), landmarks all over the world – from Niagara Falls to Brighton Pier – will be lit up in purple to raise awareness of developmental language disorder (DLD). 

DLD is the term used when a person has difficulty with talking and/or understanding language, and for which there is no known cause. 

The condition starts in childhood and affects all languages spoken.


Quick read: DLD: the common language disorder we need to talk about

Quick listen: 'Phonics is crucial - even for those who won’t ‘get’ it'

Want to know more? Exam fear: why students go blank during tests


Perhaps surprisingly for a condition related to language, until recently there was no agreed terminology to describe it. This confusion has resulted in DLD being unrecognised and misunderstood. International consensus was agreed in 2016 but still most people do not know about DLD.

The chances are that you teach a student who has DLD. Some 7.6 per cent of the population present with DLD, which equates to two children in a class of 30. 

Think about how much talk the students in your class need to understand to access learning. The discussion of a shared book and the learning of new mathematic or scientific concepts all require language.

It is hardly surprising then that DLD has serious impacts on students’ literacy, wider academic achievement and mental health. Your students need you to know about DLD.

Identifying DLD in the classroom

DLD has been referred to as a hidden disability; it is impossible to tell by looking at someone if they have the condition. This is compounded by its variability.

Confusingly, some students with DLD may even talk a lot. The most obvious signs of DLD will be students who cannot express themselves as well as their peers, using simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences.

Of those with this hidden disability, the most hidden are the students who have poor understanding. Their expressive language may give some clues, but the severity of their needs may not be as obvious.

You may need to undertake some detective work to identify them, as they rarely say “Excuse me, miss, but I don’t understand”.

If a student presents with any of the following it is worth taking a closer look, as they may have underlying difficulties with understanding language.

· Poor listening: many with DLD struggle with listening, but when they are paying attention, do they understand what is said to them?

· Off topic: in class discussion, they may pick up on the general gist and respond to that, rather than specifics.

· Reading difficulties: some students with DLD may struggle with phonics, but even once they can decode, do they understand what they read?

· Behaviour issues: difficulties understanding language impact on behaviour in many different ways and research studies show 60 to 90 per cent of all students with behaviour difficulties have a language disorder.

Supporting DLD in the classroom

A diagnosis of DLD can only be made by a specialist, such as a speech and language therapist, conducting a thorough assessment.

There is no cure, and short-term interventions will have limited effect, so the focus needs to be about long-term support, strategies, self-management and awareness

Because DLD presents in many different ways, a personalised programme is essential, but these classroom strategies are a starting point.

Relationships

As with all vulnerable learners, students with DLD need to feel they are understood and supported. They need trusted people to go to when they need to. They need people who know about DLD and how to support students with the condition.

Reduced language load

Differentiating whole-class talk is a challenging skill to master, but a few modifications will make it more accessible for all learners. Use short, simple sentences. Use words you know they understand.

Do not talk for too long at any one time. Pause to allow processing time. Repeat key points. Summarise what you have said, especially if it has been longer or more complex.

Understanding checks

Not all students who struggle with understanding are aware of their needs or how much they are missing, so when asked “Do you understand?” they may answer "yes", even when they do not.

A better alternative is “Tell me what you need to do”, or “Explain the process to a friend”. A strong relationship will make it easier for students to admit when they do not understand.

Non-verbal supports

When students struggle to extract meaning from language, then alternative methods of conveying meaning need to be found.

Use objects or hands-on learning where possible. A well-chosen image or photograph can act as a focus. Pictograms or symbols can be used to visually represent more abstract concepts. Free symbols are available from arasaac.org.

Stephen Parsons is chair of Naplic. To find out more about DLD and join in raising awareness, go to radld.org

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