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Supporting a Child with DLD in the Classroom

Children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) benefit from individualized intervention. Read more about individualized intervention for children with DLD here [1].

Another way to help children with DLD is by providing support right in the classroom, which is where they spend a lot of their time! The classroom is full of language. The teacher gives verbal instructions, classmates engage in discussion, and children often present their work by talking about it. And it’s not just in ‘language arts’ that language is used. Language demands go across the whole curriculum. Subjects like math, science, and social studies all require understanding of specialized vocabulary, and engagement with complex concepts. Whether the classroom is virtual or in person, the language of the classroom can be very challenging for a child with DLD. So how do we help?

Make the Language of Instruction More Accessible

We can help children with DLD understand class instructions by using a few simple techniques:

  1. Face the child – When you look at the child, your speech signal is clearer, you give added signals with your body movements, and you convey the importance of your words.
  2. Make clear, explicit statements – Instead of, ‘You need to be ready for your next class’, say, ‘Class is over. Put away your books and line up at the door for your next class.’
  3. Repeat and rephrase key instructions – The teacher knows best what instructions need to be given. Go ahead and give the full instructions so everyone in the class can work at their pace. But plan to go back and repeat each step of the instructions in short, simple sentences. These repetitions will help the child with DLD understand and retain the steps in the task.
  4. Use multimodal supports – Use lots of different ways to convey messages in the classroom, not just talking. Use gestures and visual supports like pictures, graphic organizers, visual planners, charts, and posters. Write down key words too.

Don’t forget that in later school grades, class activities often involve written instruction. Written language tends to have more complex words and sentences, so it can be even more challenging for children with DLD. Here are some ways you can make written language tasks more accessible for a child with DLD:

  1. Breakdown larger amounts of information – Just looking at a big paragraph of words can be disheartening for a child with DLD. Breaking down the information into shorter paragraphs, using point form, and adding extra white space can make it more accessible.
  2. Use visually distinct sections – Organizing the page so that separate instructions, steps, themes, or activities are clearly set apart from each other can help the child with DLD manage the task in smaller steps.
  3. Use graphics and icons – A picture that is directly related to the task at hand can act as an important cue to what the words on the page are about.
  4. Provide key word definitions – Children with DLD need many repetitions to learn a new word, and they may still struggle when the new word is part of a challenging language task. Provide a list of key words and their definitions in a consistent manner across tasks. That way, the child with DLD can quickly remind themselves of the meaning of important words and continue with the task.
  5. Have questions and text on the same page – Very (very) often, children with DLD will need to go back and look at the question as they try to complete a task. Having the question right on the same page means fewer steps for the child with DLD. Fewer steps means the task is less burdensome, and the child with DLD can concentrate more on the language and learning required.

Supporting the Child with DLD’s Communication Participation

It can be challenging to help children with DLD use and develop their talking skills in a busy classroom. Here are a few strategies:

  1. Talking with classmates – Allow opportunities for children in the class to spend time talking to each other. Create chances for children with and without DLD to talk to one another. Research shows that the child with DLD will show language growth, and that there will be no negative effects for the child without DLD.
  2. Explicitly teach conversational tools – Set up classroom rules or strategies for how students can engage in classroom discussion. These ‘talk moves’ provide sentence starters that can help a child join in. For example, the ‘add on’ talk move begins with the starter, ‘I’d like to add on something…’.
  3. Explicitly teach language structures – Children, like everyone, need to be able to tell a story. Research shows that children tell better stories when they learn about the parts of a story (e.g., that a story has characters, a setting, a problem, a consequence, etc.), and that this teaching can be done effectively in the classroom.
  4. Don’t forget: allow alternate responses – Keep in mind that listening and talking all day long is exhausting for a child with DLD. Make sure the child with DLD has other ways of showing their learning. For example, they could draw a picture or map out their knowledge.

Educators and Speech-Language Pathologists Working Together

It’s important to note that children with DLD need many repetitions, opportunities to practice, and consistent, well-planned instructions to make positive changes in their language. In a busy classroom, it is difficult for one teacher to be able to provide the focused practice a child with DLD needs to progress. That’s why educators and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) team up in the classroom. Through co-teaching, educators and SLPs can create a rich language and literacy learning environment with positive effects on children with DLD and other children struggling with language too. When SLPs provide intervention to the whole class or small groups in the classroom, it is often called ‘push in’ services. Research shows that push in services have had positive effects on children with DLD’s vocabulary and story-telling skills, as well as the ability to recognize and manipulate the parts of spoken words and sentences known as phonological awareness, an important skill for learning to read. For making gains on specific, individualized language structures such as grammar, however, it seems that individualized intervention is needed.

Much of school learning is based on language – on the ability to understand and participate in both spoken and written forms. By providing language supports to the child with DLD in the classroom, we can maximize the child’s ability to access important learning opportunities.


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