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  • Phonology or speech sounds – Children who struggle with phonology will have difficulties distinguishing and recognizing speech sounds.
  • Syntax (grammar) and morphology – A child may struggle with creating grammatically correct sentences, adding prefixes and suffixes to verbs, and use of proper tenses.
  • Semantics or vocabulary – Children with a DLD tend to have reduced vocabulary and struggle to understand that some words have different meanings.
  • Word finding – Even when a child is familiar with a word, he or she will have trouble accessing or using it (tip of the tongue phenomenon).
  • Pragmatics – This refers to social communication, inferencing, and figurative language. Children who struggle with pragmatics may have trouble using appropriate language (including nonverbal communication) in different social situations and daily interactions.
  • Discourse (narrative and conversation) – Children with DLD often have trouble telling stories or describing a sequence of events.
  • Verbal memory and learning – Remembering words, particularly unfamiliar ones, is difficult for a child with DLD. A child will also struggle to recall and understand long or complex sentences. These students have reduced working memory, which makes language learning more difficult for them.

Read about Building Vocabulary With Critical Thinking Skills and Comparing Two Established Multimedia Approaches for Teaching Vocabulary to Students with and Without Disabilities.

How to Diagnose a DLD

A child who shows signs of having a DLD or language impairment can undergo an assessment by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) either privately or through the school or local school district.

The signs of a language impairment or disorder are often hard to detect, more so in the absence of co-occurring issues such as autism, hearing loss, or genetic conditions like Down syndrome. If a child exhibits the following symptoms, a DLD assessment should be considered.

  • Significant language deficits in relation to one’s age that interfere with communication and learning in daily life.
  • Persistent language problems that are likely to remain unresolved by age five.
  • The language problems are not linked to any known biomedical condition.

During the evaluation process, an SLP will assess the child’s interest in communicating. Some speech-language pathologists are experts working with early childhood development whereas other SLPs work with the school-age population.  An SLP will observe how understandable the child’s expressive language is as well as his or her ability to understand words and sentences. A typical evaluation consists of the following steps:

  1. Interviewing the child’s parents, caregiver, and teacher to document the child’s family, health, and academic history. The SLP will ask about their own concerns and observations of the child’s strengths and weaknesses when communicating.
  2. Observing the child during conversation or storytelling and noting pronunciation problems, finding the right words, building grammatically correct sentences, and other relevant information.
  3. Taking a series of standardized tests to compare the child’s speech, language, and overall communication with expected levels for his or her age.
How to Treat Children with a DLD

Like other related language communication disorders, a DLD is a lifelong condition that cannot be permanently cured. But with the help of a speech-language pathologist, the child can learn strategies and techniques to help manage the condition.

After a diagnosis of DLD, the SLP will conduct further analysis and observations before creating an individualized program. The methods and strategies can vary from child to child, depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Eliciting, modeling, and scaffolding that target linguistic features through specific modalities, e.g. expressive, listening, reading, writing,  is how a licensed language therapist/pathologist models, teaches and reinforces aspects of language that need addressing. This includes sounds, vocabulary, grammatical structures, and social use.

In younger children, therapy is typically interwoven into natural communication, such as conversation and play! For older children, interventions are typically embedded in the school curriculum or within literacy activities. It is also essential to have parents and teachers involved in the process, as learning must happen outside of the language therapists’ sessions!

Know more about developmental language disorders:

Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (RADLD) – Helpful resources that explain what a DLD is, its impact, and how to help raise awareness on the condition.

The Universal Indicators of Developmental Language Disorders: A Checklist for SLPs– The Universal Indicators of DLD Checklist.

Language Disorders in Children and Adolescents, by Dr. Joseph Beitchman and Dr. E.B. Brownlie, report that approximately 50% of language-based learning challenges go undiagnosed.

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