Understanding Specific Language Impairment in Children

Specific language impairment, also known as language dysphasia, affects approximately seven to eight percent of children around the age of five. This makes it one of the most prevalent childhood learning disabilities. Keep reading to learn more about this common condition, how it is diagnosed, its effects, and what can be done to help the child.


Specific language impairment, or SLI, is a language disorder characteristic of children without hearing impairment or other developmental delays struggling to master language skills. This condition is also known as developmental dysphasia, language delay, or developmental language disorder.


Possible signs of Specific Language Impairment include:

  • Lateness or slow progress in speech

  • Poor intelligibility in speech

  • Being unable to understand figurative speech or jokes

  • Using words with fewer syllables

  • Overextending – calling all female adults “mommy”

  • Underextending – calling the family pet “dog”, but not extending this term to other dogs

  • Trouble finding or retrieving words – this leads to using general or vague words and dysfluencies

  • Using shorter sentences or utterances during conversation

  • Using telegraphic speech, such as “turtle eat lettuce”

  • Being incapable of understanding longer or complex instructions

Other Examples of Specific Language Impairment

A hallmark sign of SLI is difficulty with verbs. Commonly, five-year-old children with SLI will drop the “s” from the end of English present-tense verbs, dropping the past tense, or asking questions without using a “be” or “do” verb. For example, a child with SLI will say “she drink the tea” instead of “she drinks the tea.” Instead of saying, “she ate the carrot,” the child will say, “she eat the carrot.” Instead of saying, “why does he like music?”, the child will say, “why he like music?”


As of yet, there are no known causes of specific language impairment. However, current research indicates a significant genetic link. Between 50 and 70% of children who suffer from SLI have at least one other family member with the same language disorder.


If you suspect your child, or a child you teach, has specific language impairment, involve a speech-language professional such as a speech-language pathologist. To diagnose SLI, assessment tools will test language skills by evaluating how effective the child is at constructing sentences and keeping their words in the correct order, the quality of the child’s spoken language, and the number of words in the child’s vocabulary.

Tests include children interacting with toys such as puppets and focusing on specific grammar rules, like commonly misused verb tenses. These tests are most commonly conducted on children between the ages of three and eight. These tests are particularly useful for identifying SLI in children once they have begun school.


Specific language impairment affects learning, because it negatively affects reading. Thus, if the disorder is not diagnosed and treated early, a child’s performance in school can suffer. Early signs of SLI are often present in children as young as 3 years old, so children between the ages of 3 and 5 can participate in special language development enrichment programs to prepare them for school.

Such programs may include children who are developing normally to act as role models for children with language impairment. It may also feature activities encouraging sharing time and role-playing. Other activities include hands-on lessons which explore interesting, new vocabulary.

Some parents also seek a speech-language pathologist to assess the needs of their child, recommend home materials for enrichment at home, and engage the child in structured activities.


If you think your child is suffering from specific language impairment, or for more information on any of our services, please do not hesitate to call 800-Novomed (800-668-6633) today.