The Grammar Acquisition Lab: Developmental Language Impairment

Has a preschool teacher or grandparent ever told you that it’s really hard to understand your child? Does your child leave out the little parts of speech like the –ed on jumped?  Maybe your child gets stuck trying to remember a word… and the next word… and the next word?  You may wonder if your child is the only child struggling to communicate clearly.  If you worry about your child’s language and communication you aren’t alone!  

Approximately 1 in 14  children have trouble learning and using language! Sometimes called Receptive/Expressive Communication Delays, Language Learning Impairments or Specific Language Impairments, this rarely talked about learning disability is more common than autism!

Children who experience language learning impairments often are described as slow to hit language milestones. These children may say their first words at 18 months or 2 years of age instead of at 1 like their peers.  They may combine words into short sentences (e.g., “mommy ball”) later as well.  As preschoolers, their spoken language is characterized by short sentences with many mistakes (“her running” “me go home yesterday”) and use of overly simple or vague vocabulary words (and then “I did the stuff at…uhm.. there”).  The stories they tell might be overly simple or leave out key details. During their school years, these children may be diagnosed with a reading disability or have trouble keeping up with the listening and speaking demands of a regular classroom, even though they don’t have a hearing impairment or intellectual disability.  Parents and teachers can become frustrated with what seems like laziness or inattention, when really it’s a learning problem where understanding and using language effectively is challenging.


If this sounds like your child, you may want to reach out to your local school district or area education agency for a free evaluation of your child’s language and cognitive skills.  Even children who are not yet enrolled in preschool are eligible for a free assessment and therapy through their local public school. Language learning impairments are most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 5.  

Early identification supports early intervention, which is critical for preventing later academic and social difficulties.  Children with spoken language difficulties can improve their language use with help. A speech language pathologist is the best person to provide one-on-one or small group support, as well as information about ways that parents, day care providers, and teachers can support language learning.

Researchers across the nation are studying how to assess and treat Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Scientists ask questions about what helps these children learn and how we can improve the therapy we provide.  The Grammar Acquisition Lab at the University of Iowa in Iowa City is currently carrying out studies on SLI and we see children across the state in their homes, schools, local libraries or community centers. We are currently studying how children learn to use past tense –ed, how curriculum-based learning is affected by language learning, and how children find patterns in the language they hear.  If you are interested in learning more about the studies we are carrying out and whether or not your child might be eligible to participate, please contact us on our website.  To learn more about language learning and early education, follow us on facebook at GrammarLab.   


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