Top 10 Things you should know . .
about children with Specific Language
Specific Language Impairment has
been actively studied for more than 40 years. Language acquisition
is the primary area of concern as the child grows and develops.
There are no obvious related causes such as hearing loss or
low IQ. The condition appears
in young children and is known to persist into adulthood.
Although the causes are unknown, current research focuses
on possible inherited tendencies. Early identification and
intervention are considered best practices, in order to minimize
possible academic risks.
This fact sheet was written by Joy
Simpson in collaboration with Mabel L. Rice, an international
expert on language disabilities in children. Dr. Rice is the
Fred and Virginia Merrill Distinguished Professor of Advanced
Studies at the University of Kansas. Queries may be directed to the Merrill Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Specific Language Impairment
has many names and it is surprisingly common.
just one of the many communication disorders that affect
more than 1 million students in the public schools. If your
child has been evaluated by a speech pathologist, you may
have heard its other names: developmental language disorder,
language delay or developmental dysphasia. Specific language
impairment is the precise name that opens the door to research
about how to help a child grow and learn.
SLI is more common than you might
think. Research over the past ten years has generated accurate
estimates of the numbers of young children that are affected
by SLI. We now know it could be as high as 7 to 8 percent
of the children in kindergarten. In comparison, Down syndrome
or autism affects less than one percent of the five-year
- Late talking may be a sign of
As they enter their two's and grow
into three and four, children have a remarkable number of
ways to tell adults what they need. Even if the words don't
all sound right, a normally developing child will make many
efforts to communicate and will make his point effectively.
Young children ask so many questions -- often exhausting
their parents and care providers. Children who don't ask
questions or tell adults what they want may have a communication
Children with SLI may not produce any words until they are
nearly two years old. At age three, they may talk, but can't
be understood. As they grow, they will struggle to learn new
words, make conversation and sound coherent.
is underway to determine which children do not outgrow this
pattern of delayed speech. By age 4 to 5 years, SLI could
be a signpost of a lasting disability that persists throughout
the school years.
- A child with SLI does not have
a low IQ or poor hearing.
Several other disabilities involve
difficulties communicating, but for these children the primary
diagnosis will be mental retardation, or autism, or hearing
loss, or cerebral palsy. A child with SLI scores within
the normal range for nonverbal intelligence. Hearing loss
is not present. Emerging motor skills, social-emotional
development and the child's neurological profile are all
normal. The only setback is with language. SLI is the primary
- Speech impediments are different
from language disorders.
A child with a speech disorder makes
errors in pronouncing words, or may stutter. Recent studies
find that most children with SLI do not have a speech disorder.
SLI is a language disorder. This means that the child has
difficulty understanding and using words in sentences. Both
receptive and expressive skills are typically affected.
- An incomplete understanding of
verbs is an indicator of SLI.
Five-year old children with SLI
sound about two years younger than they are. Listen to the
way a child uses verbs. Typical errors include dropping
the -s off present tense verbs and asking questions without
the usual "be" or "do" verbs. For example, instead
of saying "She rides the horse" the child will say
"She ride the horse." Instead of saying "Does he
like me?" the child will ask "He like me?" Children
with SLI also have trouble communicating that an action
is complete because they drop the past tense ending from
verbs. They say, "She walk to my house yesterday"
instead of "she walked to my house."
- Reading and learning will be affected
SLI does affect a child's academic
success, especially if left untreated. Forty to seventy-five
percent of the children have problems learning to read.
- SLI can be diagnosed precisely
In the last ten years, researchers have documented the ways
that SLI occurs. Clinical practice is catching up to these
advances in research. In the past, SLI has not been included
on educational classification systems used by speech pathologists
or psychologists, and when identified, it was called a language
In 2001, the Psychological Corporation released the first
comprehensive test for SLI. The Rice/Wexler
Test of Early Grammatical Impairment is based on research
funded by the National Institutes of Health, and carried
out at the University of Kansas and the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology. Speech pathologists and preschool educators
can use this test with children ages 3 to 8. It will point
to the specific gaps in a child's language abilities so
that treatment can be more effective. It is especially useful
for identifying children with SLI at the time of school
- The condition may be genetic.
The genetic origin of SLI has not
yet been proven, but studies show that fifty to seventy
percent of children with SLI have at least one other family
member with the disorder. Several researchers are studying
twins, looking for the genetic link. In 2001, British researchers
successfully found the chromosome that affected 15 of 37
members of a London family with a profound speech and language
- The nature of the disability
limits a child's exposure to language.
Children with SLI need extra opportunities
to talk and to listen, but because of the disability, they
may actually have fewer chances. At a young age, curious
children ask questions over and over as they see, touch,
and experience the world. The adults in their life respond,
giving them vocabulary and grammar in a spontaneous teaching
format. A child with SLI has trouble asking "Do you?"
and says instead "You like ice cream?" This kind of
question is easily misunderstood. A child who cannot get
the message across may simply stop trying. Interactions
are especially difficult with other children because they
are less supportive and patient than adults.
- Early intervention can begin during
By age five, parents can secure
a conclusive diagnosis, but being proactive in the preschool
years is often time well spent. Equipping a child for success
at ages three and four will lead to positive experiences
in kindergarten -- and the signs of SLI are present by age
Some preschool programs are designed
to enrich the language development of students with disabilities.
This classroom may include normally-developing children
who will act unknowingly as models. The focus of class activities
may be role-playing, sharing time, or hands-on lessons with
new, interesting vocabulary. This kind of preschool will
encourage interaction between children, and will build rich
layers of language experience. It may even include techniques
from speech pathology that solicit from children the kinds
of practice they need to build their language skills.
Parents can also send their preschool child to a speech
or language pathologist in private practice. This professional
can assess the child's needs, engage in structured activities,
and can send home materials for enrichment.
Leonard, L.B. (1998). Children
with specific language impairment. Cambridge, MA: MIT
National Information Center for Children
and Youth with Disabilities, fact sheet number 11 (FS11),
January 2004. www.nichcy.org/pubs/factshe/fs11txt.htm
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.
Rice, M. (2000). Grammatical symptoms of
specific language impairment. In D.V.M. Bishop and L.B. Leonard
(Editors) Speech and language impairments in children:
causes, characteristics, intervention and outcome (pp.
17-34). East Susex, England: Psychology Press.
Rice, M. and Wilcox, K. (Editors) (1995) Building a language-focused curriculum for the preschool
classroom: a foundation for life-long communication. Baltimore:
Brookes Publishing Company.
Schuele, C.M. and Hadley, P. (1999). Potential
advantages of introducing specific language impairment to
families. American Journal of Speech-Language-Pathology,
Tager-Flusberg, H. and Cooper, J. (1999).
Present and future possibilities for defining a phenotype
for specific language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language,
and Hearing Research, 42, 1275-1278.
Tomblin, J.B. (1997). Prevalence of SLI
in kindergarten children. Journal of Speech, Language,
and Hearing Research, 40, 1245-60.