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Specific Language Impairment (SLI)


What is Specific Language Impairment (SLI)?

Some children have what is called a Specific Language Impairment (SLI). An SLI has no obvious related cause such as hearing loss, autism, or learning difficulties. The condition appears in young children and is known to persist into adulthood, with some studies stating that as many of 7% of children could be having difficulties because of an SLI. There is a higher likelihood of SLI if parents or siblings also have the diagnosis. Specific language impairment is not something children grow out of and difficulties can continue into adulthood if it is not treated. Some of these children may be functioning well in most other areas of learning, but have a specific difficulty with language.

Children who are late talkers and children with delayed expressive language may be showing signs of specific language impairment and some children may have co-occurring literacy difficulties. Some children with SLI will find it harder to learn new words, or have difficulty expressing themselves. Difficulties using verbs, using the incorrect tense, and incorrect grammatical structures are also common in children with SLI. Other children may present with difficulties understanding language and following instructions. Unfortunately, some children with no other difficulties are seen as lazy, because in all other areas of development they appear normal. However, underlying language difficulties are likely to impact on a student;s ability to read and understand what they are reading.

A child may also present with a Word-Finding Difficulty. Here the child may have the word in their vocabulary, but not always be able to recall it, instead using a similar word, or a word that sounds similar, or is linked in some way e.g. saying :

seagull instead of seal (sound similar and both live by the sea)

boat instead of canoe

A child with word-finding difficulties may also use words like “thing” instead of a noun because they cannot recall the word they want.

Typical errors that a 5-year-old child with expressive SLI would make include dropping the “s” from the end of present-tense verbs, dropping past tense, and asking questions without the usual “be” or “do” verbs. For example, instead of saying “She rides the horse,” a child with SLI will say, “She ride the horse.” Instead of saying “He ate the cookie,” a child with SLI will say, “He eat the cookie.” Instead of saying “Why does he like me?”, a child with SLI will ask, “Why he like me?


Some examples of language spoken by children with an SLI:

“They is coming” (using is instead of are)

“He ride the bike” (missing the “s” on ride)

“When will we coming home” (missing be)

“What he doing” (missing is)

“I eat it” (using eat instead of ate)

“My like that” (my instead of I)

Parents can help by taking their child to the speech and language pathologist / therapist. The therapist can then give parents strategies and programs to build the child’s language skills. Many of these strategies can be found on the Receptive Language Disorder and Expressive Language disorder pages (click on these links).

Specific language impairment can be diagnosed with a language assessment carried out by a qualified speech and language therapist / pathologist. For more information and strategies go to our Resources, and Downloads sections.


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