Children develop their language skills at different rates and there is a wide range of what is considered typical. Children and young people continue to develop new skills throughout their school life and into adolescence

Some children struggle

Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) can experience difficulties with:


  • Understanding language
  • Using language to express themselves
  • Forming speech sounds in order to articulate words correctly
  • Understanding the rules of social interaction

Children can have difficulty with just one of these areas or a combination of more than one.

Scale Of Issue Intro Image


Some children may have delayed language; they talk and understand like a younger child but with the right support they will catch up with their peers. For other children, their SLCN are longer term and they will need ongoing support. They won’t sound like a younger child and their speech may sound unusual or disorganised.

These children won’t just ‘pick language up’; they will need to be taught in a specific way. Information on the prevalence of SLCN is available here.


What does a child with SLCN look like?

  • Understanding language

    A child struggling to understand language may have the following difficulties:

    • Difficulty learning and remembering new words
    • Struggle to follow instructions
    • Literal understanding - can't read between the lines
    • Struggle to understand what they have read
    • Difficulty to understand what they have read
    • Difficulty listening without support
    • Don't understand rules of games 
  • Expressive language

    Expressive language difficulties may mean:

    • Can't remember words even though they know them
    • Sentences are immature or sound muddled
    • Misses grammatical endings such as tense or plurals
    • Finds it difficult to use longer strings of language for example to make a story
    • Difficulty stay on topic
    • Ideas are muddled or disorganised
  • Speech sound difficulties

    (sometimes called pragmatic language difficulties)

    Children with speech sound difficulties may:

    • Be difficult to understand - speech is not clear
    • Substitute sounds/use the wrong sounds
    • Struggle with phonological awareness
    • Miss out sounds in words completely 
    • Find long, multisyllabic word difficult
    • Have a limited repertoire of sounds

    A child with SLCN in an early years setting or school may:

    • Take a long time to do something and need to be told several times before they ‘get it’. Sometimes they need to be shown what to do before they understand.
    • Shy away from talking based activities – staff think they know what to do but they struggle to join in.
    • Experience literacy difficulties – they’re struggling to understand what they read, or find sequencing the order of events in their written work tricky.
    • Demonstrate difficult behaviour – acting out or being the clown, or getting angry for no clear reason.
    • Appear to lack understanding of the conceptual language used in subjects like Maths, science or geography. For example, they find words like estimate, measure, feature, high, low difficult to understand and apply.Really struggle to learn and remember new words and they might try to explain the word they’re trying to say? For example, in PE instead of saying ‘wall bars’ they may say ‘the things at the side of the room, you climb them’.
  • Want to find out more?

    • Young people with developmental language disorder (DLD) explain what this means for them and also what helps them in this short video
    • Spotting children with language difficulties in the classroom isn’t always easy. This video has detailed information on what DLD (previously known as SLI) looks like in a school setting, and contains insightful information from young people explaining how it feels for them
    • Children with word finding difficulties, often seen in children with SLCN, explain how this feels for them here
    • SLCN can present in many different ways. This video from the Communication Trust shows just a few children and the different ways they are affected by their communication difficulties
    • Misunderstood’ is a booklet introducing speech, language and communication needs and ways to support them
    • The impact of SLCN in the classroom is discussed in ‘Let’s Talk About It’
    • The impact of language difficulties on friendships is explained by one child in this video



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