How misbehaviour can be a sign of language disorder

Roughly two children in every class will have a language disorder – here’s how to identify them and give support

Jon Severs

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“Roughly two children in every classroom will have significant language needs,” explains Courtenay Norbury, professor of developmental language disorders at UCL. “[But] a teacher may not always recognise it as a language problem first. It may be spotted as a difficulty with learning, or with peers, with reading or behaviour. But very often it is a language difficulty.”

Norbury is on a mission to find better ways of diagnosing language problems and to seek out more evidence-based interventions for teachers and specialists to support these children. In this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, she explains that the first step was to give these language issues a name. 

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is now used as the term when children are not developing language as you would expect them to be – they will use shorter utterances, they may struggle to understand what you have said or asked them to do, they have difficulties with communicating with people. They say less and what they say is less complex. They tend to not understand context.”

Miscommunication issues

Currently, children with DLD tend to be seen as “lower ability” or wilfully naughty. Neither, she says, is true. 

“The assumption is often that they are naughty, but it is actually that they do not understand what you have asked them to do,” she explains. “Behaviour is communication – if you can’t express your need, or someone has misunderstood you, then children try and express that in another way. It is perceived as naughty behaviour but the child may simply not have the language skills to negotiate what they want.

“[But] if you were to speak to a young person with DLD, they will say the hardest thing is that people think they are ‘stupid’, and they are not, they just cannot explain themselves easily.”

Intervention strategies

Interventions for children with DLD tend to be “variable”, Norbury says. And the evidence suggests there is no cure for DLD, rather that it is persistent throughout school. 

“Language disorder is persistent, you can make a lot of progress in primary school, but it is likely these children will still go into secondary school with a gap to their peers and in secondary the challenges will become greater because the language you need to access the curriculum becomes more complex,” she explains.

As for what might work to help, the research is ongoing, but the teaching of specific skills seems to be the most effective strategy – which is why Norbury is wary of the rush to see vocabulary teaching as some sort of catch-all treatment.

“Vocabulary is hugely important, it is the building block of language, but while we can teach children vocabulary, there is no real evidence this cascades down into reading comprehension,” she explains. “For example, you can teach children the word they need to understand an inference, but unless you teach them how to inference specifically, it may not come naturally to them.

“What we are learning is that kids are very good at learning the things you teach them, but that does not necessarily transfer to these other things we would like them to do, and that is particularly true of children with language disorders. You should not assume that just by teaching high-quality vocabulary, which is very important, that that will have transfer.”

Screening programmes

In the podcast, Norbury goes on to discuss the pros and cons of diagnosis labels, the fact the causes of DLD remain largely a mystery and also the fact that a screening programme to spot DLD early may prove counter-productive in that it diverts cash away from much-needed interventions for older children with DLD, who tend to be more likely to experience SEMH challenges. 

You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or clicking below.

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Jon Severs

Jon Severs is editor of Tes

Find me on Twitter @jon_severs

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