The Universal Indicators of Developmental Language Disorders: A Checklist for SLPs

Language Difference vs Language Impairment

I wasn’t sure if “Abdul,” an Urdu-speaking kindergartener from a Pakistani immigrant family, was struggling academically due to a language difference or the presence of a developmental language disorder (DLD). There are no published language tests in Urdu, and I had no access to an Urdu interpreter in my large school district, even though the district served families who spoke over 90 different languages from around the world.

What was I to do?

The Background Interview: Universal Indicators of DLD

In addition to carrying out an informal nonstandardized assessment, I knew that there were certain “universal indicators” of DLD that research conclusively supports as being clinically accurate across linguistic populations. For example, around the world, typically developing (TD) children say their first word between 10 and 13 months of age and, at 24 months of age, have an expressive vocabulary of 200 to 300 words, and are speaking primarily in short phrases.

To help myself and other professionals, I developed a list of Universal Indicators of Language Impairment, which can be used with children and families in any language group. I like to use this list to interview classroom teachers, caregivers, bilingual instructional aides, and any others who have worked directly with the student in question.

What I look for is triangulation of data and converging evidence that one or more key adults in a student’s life are seeing the same challenges. When these individuals agree that the student has challenges in one or more areas on the checklist, further extensive testing usually supports their observations.

The Universal Indicators of DLD Checklist

Clinicians can interview key adults in the student’s life and ask whether, in comparison to peers from similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds, the student in question is showing any of these characteristics. Look below to download your own copy of this list to keep close at hand!

  1. Slower acquisition of language milestones than siblings in primary language (by parent report). The universal norms are:
    • 12 months—first spoken word
    • 18 months—50 spoken words and the child is putting two words together
    • 24 months—200-300 spoken words and the child is speaking mostly in short phrases
  2. Difficulty communicating at home in the primary language.
  3. Reliance on gestures rather than speech to communicate.
  4. Family history of special education and/or learning difficulties.
  5. Deficits in vocabulary, word retrieval problems, and use of general all-purpose (GAP) nouns and verbs instead of more precise vocabulary.
  6. Verbal and written definitions of words are vague and lack detail.
  7. Difficulty describing the function of objects when asked questions like “what is this used for?” or “what do you do with it?”
  8. Short mean length of utterance—sentences that are too short and simple for the child’s age, even in the primary language.
  9. Specific difficulty with morphology in both the first language and English, especially verb tense.
  10. Working memory deficits, such as repeating digits and nonwords back.
  11. Lack of organization, structure, and sequence in spoken and written language; difficulty conveying thoughts; poor narrative skills.
  12. Inordinate slowness in responding to questions, long latencies or pauses before answering.
  13. General disorganization and confusion, including prolonged difficulty with basic routines.
  14. Difficulty paying attention.
  15. Need for frequent repetition and prompts during instruction.
  16. Need for a program of instruction that is more structured than that used with most similar peers.
  17. Inappropriate social use of language (for example, interrupts frequently, digresses from topic, is insensitive to the needs or communication goals of conversational partners, cannot stay on the topic of discussion, cannot take turns in conversation).
  18. Difficulty interacting with peers from a similar cultural and linguistic background.
  19. Overall communication skills that are substantially poorer than those of similar peers.

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Ideally, clinicians should record the responses of different interviewees in different colors of pen. For example, the classroom teachers’ responses could be recorded in blue, the primary caregiver’s responses could be recorded in red, and the bilingual associate’s answers could be recorded in green pen. Once more, triangulation of data across interviewees usually points to areas of concern noticed by multiple informants.

In Abdul’s case, I interviewed his mother and his classroom teacher. Taken together, their answers indicated that he showed difficulties in both English and Urdu on almost every item. His onset of Urdu language milestones was delayed, and he manifested many more challenges than similar peers.

After extensive testing carried out by me, the psychologist, and the resource specialist, Abdul qualified for an IEP and was placed in special education so he could get the help needed to be successful—and it all started by asking the questions on the Universal Indicators checklist!

  1. Roseberry-McKibbin, C. (2022). Multicultural students with special language needs: Practical strategies for assessment and intervention (6th ed.). Oceanside, CA: Academic Communication Associates.