Whole School SEND Spotlight: Developmental Language Disorder Guide

Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) can, and do, have a lifelong impact, particularly when not recognised and supported. Effective communication is crucial for educational outcomes, social experiences, self-confidence and mental health.

SLCN are the most commonly identified type of need for pupils receiving SEN Support (those without an Education, Health and Care Plan1 and the second most common for those with an EHCP2. And these are just those pupils whose SLCN have been identified; there are likely to be many more who are either falling below the radar. Others may have had their needs misidentified as social, emotional and mental health (SEMH), or moderate learning difficulties (MLD). Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a sub-set of SLCN and you may know it as ‘specific language impairment’ or SLI.

What is Developmental Language Disorder?

DLD is a diagnosis given to children and young people who have language difficulties that create barriers to communication or learning in everyday life. These difficulties are lifelong and are not associated with a known biomedical condition such as autism, or a genetic disorder, such as Down’s syndrome.

It can only be diagnosed by a qualified speech and language therapist, and we know that access to speech and language therapy in many parts of the country can be difficult. This makes it all the more important that teachers and SENCOs understand what DLD is, how to listen to, and to involve parents, especially those of the youngest children. SENCOs and class teachers need to know how to create DLD-friendly classrooms and teaching, and how to get further support from the right people at the time when it’s needed. 

Post-lockdowns and school/nursery closures, it is becoming apparent that more children than ever before are having difficulties with language development. The challenge will be partly in understanding when these difficulties are due to missing education and will quickly resolve themselves with high-quality, communication-friendly teaching, and when they are indicative of a longer-term issue, such as DLD. For all these reasons, now, more than ever, schools need to know about the DLD Guide!

The Developmental Language Disorder Guide

The DLD guide is written by speech and language experts at I CAN, the children’s communication charity and member of the Whole School SEND consortium. It's aimed at SENCOs and teachers in both primary and secondary schools and will also be useful for nurseries and further education (FE), as the principles are essentially the same across the ages.

It offers a clear definition of DLD and how it might present in the classroom, with things to look for at different stages. Primary and secondary information is helpfully colour-coded to make the guide very user-friendly. It talks us through the identification and referral process, with a focus on involving families right from the start; there are links through to videos to support this.

The guide goes on to explain and exemplify ‘universal’, ‘targeted’ and ‘specialist’ support in mainstream schools, i.e. a ‘graduated approach’, again with colour-coded examples for both primary and secondary staff. Parents and families will find these approaches helpful too, as most of them can also be used at home and in all interactions with your child or young person.

There are case studies, including one from the mother of a boy with DLD, where she offers some useful advice to any parents who may be going through the identification and support process, or think that their child may have DLD.

One of the most helpful features of the guide is the list of tools and resources at the back, where you can link directly to websites where you will find lots of further information and support.

Developmental Language Disorder Guide summary poster

The universal, targeted and specialist approaches are helpfully summarised in a downloadable poster (PDF) – wouldn’t it be great to get that poster on every staffroom wall!

SENCO DLD Presentation to use with mainstream staff 

Finally, we recognise that SENCOs often need support with training staff in different areas of SEND, and so sitting alongside the guide, you will find a downloadable powerpoint presentation for SENCOs to use to introduce and explain DLD to mainstream school staff. The presentation is adaptable to both primary and secondary audiences and includes notes so that the information can be presented accurately and with minimal preparation time needed – make sure the SENCO in your school knows about it!

Schools definitely need to know about this!

Please share this information and the link with your school – the DLD Guide and its accompanying resources are all funded by the Department for Education so that schools can access them at no cost. Communication-friendly teaching will benefit all children and will help to identify those for whom a more specialist approach may be needed.



  1. 237,000 pupils, or 23.7 of pupils at SEN Support, SEN in England, DfE, July 2020
  2. 42,589, or 15% of those with an EHCP; SEN in England, DfE, July 2020

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Alex Grady

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