DLD Podcast Specific Learning Difficulties

#DLD – The SEN you’ve never heard of but should have…

It’s #DLDYouAndMe today.

All teachers should know about Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and yet compared to autism and dyslexia, it is unknown to many in the profession. Professor Bishop in her Winter lecture (link below) calls it the Cinderella condition.  It is arguably the most hidden difficulty in a mainstream classroom as the student may well come across as quiet, a day dreamer or possibly even negatively labelled as truculent or ‘difficult’ with behaviour problems.  If identified however, there are clear strategies which will help.

A crude comparison could be with dyslexia; whereas this signifies a set of behaviours linked to struggling with reading, writing and spelling, DLD traits are around talking (expressive) and understanding (receptive) language. It is also possible to have strength in one and weakness in the other. There will be around one student with DLD in every classroom (Bishop 2014).

A typical student with DLD in the mainstream classroom may have basic functional literacy (although not always) so will not be picked up by screening tests. Once a comprehension test is given, it may become more apparent but as these students often appear ‘typical’,  it’s not until you begin chatting to them individually that you start to see where the difficulty lies. They may even hide this quite well coming across as a bit rude, dismissive even and/or monosyllabic. Alternatively, a pupil may appear quite chatty but seem to make much sense or it’s difficult to grasp what they are trying to say; I often say to teachers that these students may talk round a subject, never quite getting to the point. A good indicator is to ask yourself, what have they actually just said to me? If you struggle to work it out then there may be some language difficulties. Other students with DLD are often described as not listening, staring out the window, blank, in their own world. He or she might be frustrating as they never appear to do what you ask, they clearly weren’t paying attention as what they’ve written has absolutely nothing to do with the task you set. Worse still they haven’t written anything. Another sign is after you have finished speaking, they turn to their friend and ask what to do relying on their friends to translate in a 1:1 situation. Please be aware of this when writing seating plans, there are some students who rely on their friends for scaffolding.

The student may get into trouble in group situations, outside at break time or in class. They look guilty, they couldn’t explain what had happened whereas the other students was able to fluently describe the incident, the child with DLD just shrugged and walked off or was somehow appearing cagey so thought to be guilty.

These are typical students with DLD. It is no surprise to learn that statistically, a student with language difficulties is more likely to get excluded and ultimately end up in prison, perhaps they struggle to get out of tricky situations or may not have realised what they were being asked to do, everyone else has reacted quickly and run off. In the court room under cross examination, they become confused, it’s going so fast, so much language being fired at them and just as they’ve processed a question it seems another is asked, confusing them further. The student appears aggressive yet are more likely to be frustrated and unable to react quickly enough.

I’ve painted a depressing picture here haven’t I? It doesn’t need to be like this however, similar to dyslexia, although residual difficulties will remain in adulthood, the language deficit can be remediated through specialist support, by teaching language and offering strategies. Reasonable adjustments in the classroom for these students can allow them to survive and hopefully thrive in a mainstream school.

Top Tips

Time, time and more time – schools go so fast – but allowing the student with DLD just a little more time to answer a question or complete a task will make a lot of difference. Introducing ‘time to think’ as a whole class strategy may benefit many of your students and harm none.

Visual visual visual – no, I’m not saying they’re a visual learner but when language is a barrier, using visual prompts can help to signpost activities for a student with DLD and trigger memory. By using images of the subject you’re discussing, it will help the student to link the information and categorise for storing.  Dual coding (link below) is an effective whole class strategy.

Modify language – for many students it is good to challenge them with extended vocabulary but for the student with DLD,  it is the carrier language and phrasing which can confuse them. Try to concentrate on the knowledge you want them to learn and simplify the other bits of language.  Keep your sentences short and concise. Use simple language so they can concentrate on the key words they need to learn.

Students with  DLD may also need literal language, struggling to cope with metaphor and idioms is a challenge, similar to others with autism.  ‘I struggle to get up in the morning’ (an example from Professor Bishop) or ‘She’s falling apart’ require reading between the lines which can be difficult for those with language difficulties.

Break down instructions into small steps – a teaching assistant (TA) can break tasks down with a tick box after each one in the same way a TA who works with pupils who are visually impaired would adapt resources.  Chunk instructions and information orally and written.

Knowing that just because they’ve nodded at you does not necessarily mean they’ve understood is a vital skill for the teacher of a student with DLD. Asking them to repeat back what they have to do is a useful strategy (but allow them time to do this). Be warned though, just repeating the same sentence back does not necessarily mean they have understood you.  It might be better to get them to rephrase.
Being sympathetic to language overload and spending 5 minutes with them explaining using spot images (like bullet points but small pictures) can make a difference.

Pre-teaching vocabulary (and post for repetition and overlearning).

Beware of circle time or any communication situations – reactions will be slower as they may require time to process all the language.

Professor Dorothy Bishop researches and champions DLD. Her Winter lecture is worth watching for further detail


She is part of RADLD – raising awareness of  DLD where there are many excellent YouTube clips.


I Can charity has many resources and knowledge on DLD.
The Communication Trust have good progression tools for teachers in primary and secondary.

Some people to look up:

Professor Courtenay Norbury

Dr Susan Ebbels

Wendy Lee – Lingo

Stephen Parsons – Word Aware

and the organisation for all things language is NAPLIC.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.