Specific Language Impairment: What is it?


Specific Language Impairment: What is it? How Can I Help My Child?

Specific Language Impairment (SLI), by definition, is a language/communication disorder which presents itself in children who otherwise have no other impairments or delays. Other terms for SLI include developmental dysphasia, developmental language disorder, speech impairment, and language delay. This is a disorder that seems to be genetic in nature, with 50% to 70% of those diagnosed having at least one other family member diagnosed as well.

Children diagnosed with SLI are prone to speech problems including late speech development (language delays), some not speaking words until the age of 2. These children may have garbled speech and be hard to understand. Learning new words and maintaining conversation is difficult for SLI children. One of the main features of the disorder is having difficulty using verbs properly. An average 5 year old SLI child will typically drop the “s” from common present-tense verbs. For example, “He ride the bike” instead of “He rides the bike.” Additionally, they will often let past tense verbs drop completely, “She say my name” in place of “She said my name.” They will also avoid the use of “do” and “be” verbs when asking questions, “When you sleep?” rather than “When do you sleep?”

These difficulties will manifest most often in expressive situations. SLI is NOT just a speech/articulation problem or speech impairment. Children with SLI cannot get the thoughts in their heads out through spoken language correctly. Somewhere in their neurons there is a misfiring, a lose connection that makes it difficult for them to “find the words” to say. This difficulty can lead to misunderstandings, frustrations, and eventually giving up trying to get others to understand what they mean. This can be amplified in their interactions with non-disabled peers because they are prone to be less patient and understanding than adults.


At one point in history it was thought that poor parenting, brain injuries around birth, and hearing loss were leading factors causing SLI. Subsequent studies have rule many of the factors as far less important that the genetic link that is surfacing. Recent research is pointing to proof that this is actually a genetic disorder which may, or may not, present with secondary disorders.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Typically, the first to notice signs of the disorder are parents or teachers. Noticing issues including language delays (late to talk), speech problems (articulation, stuttering, confusing word order/meaning), and difficulty expressing feelings or needs verbally are key to early detection and diagnosis.

Several professionals may be included in the diagnosis process. At a minimum the child would be seen by a speech-language pathologist. The pathologist uses assessments that focus on sentence construction, number of words in the child’s vocabulary, word order, and spoken language quality. There are a plethora of tests available in the commercial market available to test children. Many of these tests utilize the child’s interaction with puppets and other toys. The focus is on the proper use of grammar rules, especially the correct or incorrect use of verb tenses as the child interacts. The target age for these tests is between 3 and 8 and are very helpful when identifying SLI in children in Pre-K and Kindergarten/First Grade. Many times schools will provide this testing for students they suspect of having SLI, thus guaranteeing that students needing the academic support recieve it as early as possible in their academic careers.

Treatments will vary greatly but, will generally include working with your child, speech-language pathologists, and school personnel to give parents and children the knowledge and skills to move beyond the diagnosis.

What can I do as a parent?

* Patience and Understanding – Parents struggle with many things when they see their children struggle. You are no different. It is important, however, to remember that as frustrated as you may become, your child is even more frustrated because s/he feels like no one really understands. Being patient with yourself and your child is key. When s/he gets frustrated it is your role to make sure that s/he slows down and focuses on what it is s/he is really trying to say and encourage lots of try that again and can you think of another way to say that? Listen, encourage other ways to communicate if speech continues to be a problem. Be creative when trying to elicit responses and communication from your child. Can s/he write, identify pictures, draw pictures? Allow those kinds of responses, s/he is still communicating wants and needs, just not talking.

* Early intervention – Children with SLI typically qualify for “Birth to three” services, or the equivalent. This would get your child the earliest help available, with trained professionals who would not only help your child access and aquire language but also give you, as parent, strategies to use to support the work they do weekly with your child.

* Read – Read with your child on a regular basis. There are so many benefits in reading to any young child. For the child with SLI it becomes even more important because s/he needs to hear those correct language patterns and verb tenses. The more exposure they have to proper language, the more likely they are to pick up and start utilizing that language.

* Parallel talk – Talk about what your child is doing. Repeat appropriate speech patterns for your child and basically communicate a running account, within your child’s hearing, of the sensory experiences s/he is having in order to connect spoken language with sensory experience and expression.

* Positive Reinforcers – Praise correct language usage as often as possible. The reinforcer doesn’t need to be something tangible all the time. Hugs, high fives, and pats on the back work well. The use of goal setting and sticker charts are often effective in reinforcing appropriate behaviors, speech as well as other behaviors. The key is to keep the individual child in mind, tailoring the reinforcers to what is appealing/motivating with YOUR chld.

* Network and Advocate – Find other parents who are walking the same road as you. It is important for the well-being of your child that you take care of your own fears and concerns and stay connected to others who understand. This becomes doubly important when your child enters school. You are your child’s biggest cheerleader and advocate. It is your responsibility to speak up for your child, advocate for what s/he needs, stay in touch with school personnel (from the Principal to the bus driver that picks your child up every morning). Make sure they understand that your main concern is your child’s academic and emotional success and that you support them as the educational professionals and they should return that respect to you, as the parent.


SLI is an expressive language disorder with a strong genetic link. It affects many children, to varying degrees. With early diagnosis and intervention most students have successful academic careers and become productive citizens. Parental involvement, education, and committment are essential to this success. The key is early diagnosis, early intervention, parental education, and advocating for the needs of your child throughout his/her childhood and adolescence.

I'm Johan, a Freelance Content Creator & Content Writer from Bath, helping brands and businesses connect with their ideal clients.

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