Explainer: What is Developmental Language Disorder?

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is one of the most common disabilities affecting learning but most teachers have never heard of it. Help us spread the word on October 19: DLD Awareness Day.


Students may experience language difficulties for a range of reasons. For around two students in every classroom, it is likely that their language difficulties are a result of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). However, DLD is often under-identified and poorly understood. DLD constitutes a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act and educators are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to ensure that students with DLD can access their education and demonstrate their learning. Teacher awareness of DLD and its educational impacts is critical if they are to fulfill these obligations.

In this post, M.Phil candidates Haley Tancredi and Jaedene Glasby, and Professor Linda Graham explain what DLD is, which characteristics to look for, and how teachers can support students with language difficulties, including those with DLD.


What is DLD?

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent language difficulties that cannot be explained by another diagnosis and which exist despite adequate language-learning opportunities. DLD affects both language expression (talking and writing), as well as language comprehension (listening and reading comprehension), though one area may be more impacted than another.

The term “Developmental Language Disorder” has only recently emerged. Until last year, there were a number of terms used and various diagnostic criteria adopted when describing childhood language impairments. A common term was “Specific Language Impairment” or the acronym “SLI”. To confuse things further, in some Australian states, a targeted funding category called “Speech-Language Impairment” exists (also using the acronym SLI). However, not all students with language disorders will qualify for school-based targeted funding in the SLI category due to restrictive eligibility thresholds.

After an international agreement that consensus was needed, a group of 57 experts reached consensus on how to identify childhood impairments in language. In 2017, agreement was reached regarding the term ‘Language Disorder’ to refer to children with language difficulties that impact their ability to communicate, learn and participate in everyday life. DLD is a subset within this group of language disorders.

Given that language is integral to all aspects of the human condition, it is likely that DLD will impact a student’s emotional, social, educational and vocational outcomes if they do not receive appropriate support and reasonable adjustments. Even mild language difficulties can have significant impacts on learning. Left unaddressed, these impacts can have a profound effect on a student’s life potentially leading to early school leaving, difficulty participating in the workforce, unemployment and/or engagement with the juvenile justice system.

Indicators of DLD in the classroom

Humans are socially primed to communicate with one another. Often, teachers will “fill in the blanks” when a student finds language difficult by asking the right questions, offering words to complete their sentences, and giving the student time to create their response. Often these valuable supports are provided by teachers without conscious awareness that they are doing it or why they might need to.

As students with DLD typically want to “fit in” at school, many actively mask their difficulties. Students may engage in externalising behaviours to redirect attention from the difficulties that they are experiencing. This may mean that surface level behaviours, such as disengagement or disruption receive the most attention, while the underlying cause of the behaviour (which may be DLD) is often overlooked.

Students with DLD often experience difficulty:

  • using complete or complex sentences
  • linking their ideas and creating cohesive texts
  • retelling a story or event
  • finding the word they want to say or write to explain something
  • learning new words in various subject areas
  • spelling and reading, and
  • engaging in social interactions.

Certain school tasks may put pressure on a student’s language system, revealing their difficulties with language. In the early years, early literacy difficulties that persist into the middle primary school years may signal broader language difficulties, particularly in the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. Older students may regularly misinterpret things that they read or not understand what is required of them in assessment tasks.

Teachers may also observe that although a student appears to understand classroom content, this understanding is not reflected in the student’s written work. Even with feedback, this group of students may be unable to improve their texts. Written language tasks leave students “nowhere to hide” their language difficulties and persistent vocabulary, syntactic, text cohesion and macro-structure difficulties in written language is a red flag for possible DLD.

DLD is a lifelong condition and while targeted interventions and speech-language pathology support is important, teachers have a critical role in identifying and addressing language-based barriers within the school environment. Without adjustment, language-based barriers may impact a student with DLD’s ability to access the curriculum, as well as their ability to engage in teacher’s pedagogical practices and take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate their learning.


Supporting students with language difficulties in inclusive classrooms

Many of the pedagogical practices that teachers can adopt to reduce or remove barriers in the school environment for students with DLD are simple, cost effective and likely to benefit many students. It is the art of implementing most of the strategies, all of the time, that is critical.

Research has demonstrated that when teachers modify their instructional language, there are positive outcomes for students and teachers alike. Deliberate and conscious moderation of language demand, both in instructional language and in written materials, as well as  awareness of students’ language comprehension, is key.

Teachers can reduce language barriers and enhance the language access of all students by:

  • Using short, simple sentences, particularly when introducing new or complex information
  • Providing short units of explanation interspersed with time for students to think/interpret what has been said
  • Allowing students to work in pairs to put information into their own words or summarise information into one key idea
  • Avoiding non-literal or abstract language where possible, as unexplained sarcasm and metaphorical language can be confusing
  • Using visual aids, demonstrations or artefacts/real objects to support the ideas or concepts being taught
  • Moderating or slowing speaking rates and getting feedback from teaching peers, students or a speech pathologist to assist
  • Giving instructions in the order of their required completion
  • Repeating instructions and information, using the same words where possible
  • Using intentional gesture or action to enhance meaning
  • Providing frequent verbal summaries to review what has been said

DLD Awareness Day

To help raise awareness of DLD and the impact of language difficulties, the 19th of October 2018 is DLD Awareness Day. The theme of this year’s DLD awareness day is the “ABC’s of DLD”.

  • A stands for ASSESS your understanding of DLD, which you can do by completing this quiz.
  • B stands for BUILD knowledge — the Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (RADLD) website offers a range of resources that have been shared by researchers, clinicians and teachers from around the world.
  • C stands for CREATE awareness, which you can do by sharing this post to educate the community about DLD.

The RADLD websiteYouTube channel, Twitter handle and Facebook pages are great places to learn more about DLD.

If you are looking to do just one thing today to help others learn about DLD, watch the DLD 1-2-3 video and share it on social media or with a colleague or friend.