Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): strategies to learn vocabulary


I will focus on Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and the learning of vocabulary.

Until recently, it was known as specific language impairment (SLI), and the term was used to describe children who struggled with language where there was often no other cause, such as deafness.

Follow the DLD Blog hop by clicking on these links:

As Speech therapist we always advocate that it is so important to provide early intervention, you will find a great insight in this podcast by Catherine Jackson (Speech and language therapist)

Helen and Elisabeth (speech therapists from speech blog UK) have written a blog on how to support children with DLD.

Jude Philip is reflecting on “DLD and older student – unraveling the knot” and you can find her blog here.

DLD in Children and Young People on the Autism Spectrum by Lucy Sanctuary

A DLD Infographic by Martha at Mable

Let’s start from the beginning….How do children learn words?

Baby, Boy, Child, Childhood, Computer, ConceptFor the majority of children, learning vocabulary is a robust process that
proceeds rapidly throughout their development. Carey (1978) estimates that a typically developing six-year-old child has approximately 14000 words at his/her disposal, 8000 of which will be root words. Vocabulary development continues throughout childhood, adding a further 3000 new words per year (Clark, 1995).

Words are the building blocks of language. Word knowledge develops early in infancy and before long, children are able to produce and comprehend many thousands of words, using their vocabulary knowledge flexibly and creatively to communicate with others.

The child who is learning language identifies the pattern of the words, stores them in the long term memory and then fixes that word when it is heard several times.

Words are a crucial component of comprehension, and therefore it is not surprising to find that children who struggle with language during development often have difficulty dealing with words. This is seen most obviously when a child has an impoverished vocabulary: not knowing the meaning of a particular word has clear and detrimental implications for comprehending language which contains that word.

A word contributes to the meaning of a sentence but at the same time, the meaning of the word is in part a product of the sentence and context in which it appears. Also important is the ability to retrieve word identities to provide the meaning the listener needs in a given context and to do this rapidly, as the incoming speech stream unfolds in real time.

Chiat (2000) points out that this is a daunting task for a child and the relevant information is not neatly packaged, but rather needs to be extracted by the child. In order to define his/her hypothesis of a new word’s meaning the child must retain all aspects of the initial mapping until he/she next encounters the word. This places a great burden on long-term memories for all the relevant linguistic and non-linguistic contexts.

Vocabulary learning in a child with DLD

Children with DLD start as “late talkers” acquire their first words later than expected and often have vocabulary difficulties throughout development. Studies showed that deficits in phonological short term memory contribute to their slow development of vocabulary.

For a number of children with DLD vocabulary learning may not be such an easy task. A number of authors (Haynes, 1992; Gathercole, 1993; Bishop, 1997) have identified that:

  • Vocabulary is one of the most significant difficulties
  • Vocabulary deficits maintain in later childhood
  • Children with DLD make less progress with vocabulary than with other language areas (Haynes, 1992).
  • They have poorer word-learning than children of the same age
  • They have a reduced depth of knowledge
  • Deficits are in depth as well as breadth, this suggests that the quality of word knowledge is different in children with DLD, not just the quantity of words known.
  • Children with DLD can learn words
  • They need more exposures to new words than children who are typically developing.
  • They are also less able to retain newly learned words over time
  • They frequently experience difficulties with understanding vocabulary and are subsequently academically disadvantaged.

Given the importance of vocabulary in the learning process and the difficulties
experienced by these children in the area of vocabulary acquisition, it is a
priority to establish how best to address vocabulary difficulties.



Facts about Vocabulary

  • 450,000 words in English- largest vocabulary any language in use today• Students must learn 3,000 words per year by the age of 8.
  • Only 400 words a year are directly taught by teachers
  • Academic demands are high
  • Everyday speech consists of only 5,000- 7,000 words
  • Children begin primary school with a 6,000 word spoken vocabulary
  • Learn 36,000 more words by the end of school
  • Learn 5 words a day

Children learn word meanings indirectly in three ways:

  1. Daily conversations and oral language experience with adults and other children
  2. Listening to adults read to them
  3. Reading extensively on their own

How can we support children with DLD increase their vocabulary

The research in vocabulary indicate that children increase their vocabulary if they have a wide ranging experiences, sufficient number of exposures, active engagement, consistent direct instruction and useful word learning strategies. Here are more strategies:

  • Directly by teaching words explicitly, using word learning strategies, and becoming word conscious.
  • Specific word instruction
  • Word learning strategies
  • Intensive work
  • Repetitions
  • Active engagement
  • Increase Phonological Awareness Skills
    • Word Boundaries
    • Counting words
    • Rhyming
    • Syllables
    • Sentence imitation (chants)
  • Reinforcing Categories
    • Water
    • Lights
    • Money
    • Letters
    • Numbers
    • Food
    • Clothes

Using a word map which is a visual organizer that promotes vocabulary development. Using a graphic organizer, students think about terms or concepts in several ways. This is an example but there are many versions depending on the age of the child. Semantic maps (or graphic organizers) are maps or webs of words. The purpose of creating a map is to visually display the meaning-based connections between a word or phrase and a set of related words or concepts

Image result for word mappingRelated image


Word Aware Programme is a structured whole school approach to promote the vocabulary development of all children. Focused on whole class learning, the resource is of particular value for those who start at a disadvantage – including children with Developmental Language Disorder, Special Educational Needs and those who speak English as an additional language, but it will extend the word learning of all students.

The Expanding Expression Tool (EET) Kit is designed to be used by teachers,  parents, speech-language therapist and other specialists to support academics. As a mnemonic device, it provides visual and tactile information which facilitates improved language organization. The kit itself is designed to allow you to follow a hierarchical approach taking student’s expression from words to paragraphs to reports. Therefore, it can be used by a variety of ages.

Other links:

Buzz words

Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children

Anna Biavati-Smith

4 thoughts on “Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): strategies to learn vocabulary”

  1. Pingback: 10 strategies to support children with DLD – Speechbloguk

  2. Pingback: DLD and older students – unravelling the knot | Jude Philip - Grow Communication

  3. Pingback: Developmental Language Disorder in Children and Young People with Autism - Lucy Sanctuary

  4. Christopher Sapsford

    I am 63 and
    have been afflicted by this condition since a young age,I struggle terribly with Language go over the meanings of words constantly but not much registers,it’s so frustrating I have resorted to alcohol in a heavy damaging way.I have been told the wiring in my brain is wrong,I am borderline Wernicks Korsakoff syndrome,I am on the autism spectrum maybe Asperger’s.You explain it very well in the 1960’s it should have been picked up,but everything seems geared towards children’s development.Sadly I think alcohol will destroy me.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Anna Biavati - Smith SLT presents
Scroll to Top