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Most children develop language skills in a predictable pattern across time. Children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) often develop language skills in the same predictable pattern but they are delayed in meeting language milestones.

​Language is a complex skill that helps us every day to:

  • Understand the words you hear (and read)
  • Choose the right words to tell someone exactly what you mean to say
  • Speak all the words needed to tell someone what you think
  • Use words to connect with others

Signs of DLD By Age​

Below are signs of DLD in English speakers by age. Every child is a unique person so some children with DLD may not show every sign. Typically developing children without DLD may also show some of these signs.

Preschool (3 years to 5 years old)

  • Sentences that are short and not grammatical in his or her dialect. For example:
    • Car go
    • Me happy
    • Him running
    • She not going
    • She play last night
  • Difficulty following directions when not embedded in a routine.
  • Difficulty understanding what is being said.
  • Difficulty asking questions.
  • Difficulty finding words to express thoughts.

Primary School (6 years to 11 years old)

  • Difficulty following multistep directions.
  • Difficulty producing grammatical utterances.
  • Difficulty writing grammatical utterances.
  • Difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, or math.
  • Unorganized stories with few details.
  • Limited use of complex sentences.

Adult (18 years and beyond)

  • Difficulty understanding complex written material.
  • Difficulty writing grammatically correct sentences.
  • Difficulty finding the right words when speaking.

When to Contact Your Child's Primary Care Doctor

A diagnosis of DLD is not typically made prior to the preschool years but that doesn’t mean you should wait to act on concerns about your child’s communication. Here are some reasons to contact your child’s primary care provider:

1 year of age

  • No reaction to sound.
  • No babbling.
  • Difficulty feeding.
  • No imitation.
  • Limited use of gestures.
  • Does not use 1-5 words or signs by 18 months.

2 years of age

  • Minimal eye contact.
  • Minimal attempts to communicate with gestures or words.
  • Takes many tries to learn the names of common objects.
  • Difficulty following simple directions.
  • Inconsistent response to “no”.

3 years of age

  • Limited use of speech.
  • Speech is not understandable to parents.
  • Limited understanding of simple questions.
  • Difficulty naming objects or pictures.
  • Produces at most 2-word phrases.
  • Frustration related to communication.

This a guide on childhood language development. All children grow and develop differently. If you have concerns about your child’s health or development, contact your child’s primary care provider. If you have specific concerns about your child’s communication skills, contact a speech-language pathologist.


Leonard, L.B. (1998). Children with specific language impairment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rice, M. L. (2002). A unified model of specific and general language delay: Grammatical tense as a clinical marker of unexpected variation. In Y. Levy and J. Schaeffer (Editors), Language competence across populations: Toward a definition of Specific Language Impairment, (pp. 63-95). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rudolph, J. M., & Leonard, L. B. (2016). Early language milestones and specific language impairment. Journal of Early Intervention, 38(1), 41-58.

Visser-Bochane, M. I., Gerrits, E., Schans, C. P., Reijneveld, S. A., & Luinge, M. R. (2016). Atypical

speech and language development: A consensus study on clinical signs in the Netherlands. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 52(1), 10-20. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12251