Understanding Language

Children with difficulties in understanding spoken language and in producing complex sentences are at greater risk of long-term difficulties throughout the curriculum. Language difficulties often go unrecognised as children can try and hide what they do not know. 

For many children, an early focus on broader oral language skills can be a crucial element to preventing reading failure. Research has highlighted the vital role that oral language skills such as vocabulary and story production play in literacy development. 

Information & Resources for Schools

Developmental Language Disorder is the term used to refer to children and young people that have difficulties with expressive and/or receptive language skills that impact on everyday life. Difficulties can include producing or understanding complex sentences, or learning new words. ‘Developmental Language Disorder’ was the agreed term for when a language disorder is not associated with a known condition such as autism spectrum disorder, brain injury, genetic conditions such as Down’s syndrome and sensorineural hearing loss.

Until recently the terms ‘Specific Language Impairment’, ‘language disorder’ and ‘developmental language impairment’ were used.

In 2016 an international group of 57 experts (the CATALISE panel) reached consensus on the criteria used for children’s language difficulties (Bishop et al, 2016b).


Phonology is the branch of linguistics concerned with the organisation of speech sounds into categories. When learning language, the child has to learn which features to ignore and which to focus on.

Phonological problems can present as difficulties with speech production that are linguistic in origin or due to motor impairment or physical abnormality.  A linguistic problem is identified when a child fails to make a speech distinction between sounds e.g. when a child says ‘tea’ rather than ‘key’, substituting /t/ for /k/.

Phonological errors of this kind are common in early development, but can persist and impact on clarity of speech. Phonological problems in pre-school children, that are not accompanied by other language problems respond well to specialist intervention by a speech and language therapist. 

‘Speech Sound Disorder’ (SSD) is an umbrella term that also includes problems with speech production that have motor or physical origins, or involve misarticulations such as a lisp, where a sound is produced in a distorted way without losing the contrast with other sounds.

It is not always easy to distinguish between phonological disorders and other types of  speech production problem. 

Phonological awareness, is the ability to explicitly categorise and manipulate the sounds of language. Children with phonological difficulties may be unable to identify the three phonemes constituting the word ‘bat’, or to recognise that ‘bat’  and ‘bar’ begin with the same phoneme. Phonological awareness difficulties are common in children with reading difficulties.