Developmental Language Disorder in the mainstream classroom

Written by: Sue Marr | Published:
Support: Moor House School & College in Surrey specialises in supporting pupils aged seven to 19 with speech and language difficulties (image supplied)

What is Developmental Language Disorder and how can mainstream teachers support students with the condition in lessons? Sue Marr advises

Moor House is one of the very few schools in the country specialising in supporting pupils aged seven to 19 with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), providing individually tailored education with integrated speech and language therapy for those with the most severe and complex forms of the condition.

In this article, I will explain what DLD is and consider how mainstream teachers can support children and young people in class. I have taught pupils with DLD for many years and have experience of devising and delivering a mainstream curriculum that has been highly differentiated for the language needs of the pupils in my classes.

What is Developmental Language Disorder?

DLD is when a child or adult has difficulties talking and/or understanding language but does not have another biomedical condition such as autism or intellectual disability. These difficulties can impact on literacy, learning, friendships and emotional wellbeing.

How common is it?

Recent research in Surrey (Norbury et al, 2016) found that seven per cent of children have DLD. This means that in an average class of 30, two children may have DLD. It is much more common than autism, yet it remains a “hidden” condition that is often missed, misdiagnosed or misinterpreted as poor behaviour, poor listening or inattention.

Classroom strategies

Support from professionals, can make a real difference to children with DLD. Speech and language therapists and specialist teachers can help them to develop skills and strategies, and to understand their difficulties and their strengths.

Mainstream teachers can support children through understanding the individual child’s difficulties and by making very simple adaptations to their teaching practice by using these 10 key strategies.

  • Time: Allow the pupil with DLD more time to process information and instructions (receptive language) and to formulate their answers (expressive language).
  • Visual support: Using visual prompting can help to signpost activities for pupils with DLD and trigger memory. Make use of interactive whiteboards, iPads, apps and online videos. Provide visual timetables, language-rich displays and clear/simple signage around the school. Add pictures to your worksheets and where possible make use of real-life objects.
  • Sign it: Signing supports the development of expressive language and helps with understanding because a child/young person is given an extra visual clue. The majority of teachers are not trained signers but what we all do well is to use gestures, facial expressions and body language in our everyday teaching. So, if you have a pupil with DLD in your class, try to ensure that you use these skills more overtly! It might also be useful to learn or make up your own signs for key curriculum vocabulary for the whole class to learn.
  • Do it: Pupils with DLD respond well when provided with a multi-sensory teaching approach. Try to provide plenty of opportunities for kinaesthetic learning, especially in topics that have a heavy language load. Start with the pupils’ first-hand experience, focus on life-skills and creative tasks where possible. Throughout practical activities, model the language that you want the pupil to use. This will then support any subsequent spoken or written tasks.
  • Modify your language: Slow your rate of speech! Give one instruction at a time and build the task up. Keep your sentences short and concise, pause in between sentences so pupils can process the information more easily. Be prepared to rephrase what you say more than once. Try to use word order that follows time, for example, “Finish question 10 before you go outside” is easier for a pupil with DLD to understand than “Before you go outside finish question 10”. Where possible, simplify vocabulary, for example using the word “make” instead of “produce”.
  • Chunk information: To support the pupils’ understanding of everyday instructions, chunk the information by using pauses. For example: “Tidy your desk … collect your planner … then line up.” It is often useful to repeat the instruction again. Be explicit, use literal language. Pupils with DLD struggle to understand inference and language forms such as idioms and metaphors.
  • Words: Pupils with DLD will know fewer words than their typically developing peers. It is vital that we teach new words, ensuring that key curriculum vocabulary is explicitly taught. Try to plan vocabulary activities that target subject-specific words – pupils with DLD will not pick up new vocabulary like their peers. Perhaps set aside five minutes at the start of lessons for “vocabulary time”. The whole class could benefit, particularly in subjects such as maths and science, as the vocabulary used, can be very abstract and involve complex temporal or spatial language.
  • Small steps: Break-down tasks in to smaller and more manageable parts. Provide a tick list so the pupils can see their progress and know what to do next.
  • Repeat it: Try to recap previous learning at the beginning of each lesson. Many pupils with DLD have difficulties with working memory and so benefit from prompting. Throughout the lesson, repeat what you want the children to learn and model the use of targeted vocabulary. Do the same activity more than once but make small changes each time to extend learning. Ask the pupils to repeat back to you what they have been asked to do so that you can assess their understanding.
  • Model it: Whether spoken or written, always model the language you want the pupil with DLD to use. Provide them with a toolkit of phrases/sentence structures that they can use to answer specific question forms.


These 10 strategies should not be viewed as extra workload for teachers. Supporting pupils with DLD is really about good classroom practice: making lessons visual/practical, prioritising vocabulary, varying teaching approaches, using innovative resources, being consistent, and allowing time for consolidation of learning.

  • Sue Marr is a specialist teacher (SLCN) at Moor House School & College in Oxted, Surrey. She has extensive experience teaching in both mainstream and SEN settings.

Further information & resources

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