Specific Language Impairment (SLI)

Children with SLI manifest an impairment specific to language. This impairment is not secondary to other developmental disabilities. Children with SLI have no known etiology or associated condition, such as sensorimotor problems, intellectual disability, or significant neurological impairments. Some children with SLI have cognitive deficiencies, although their general intelligence may be within the normal range. The sequence of language development in children with SLI is the same as that of typically developing children. However, problems may be seen with various components of language. Children with SLI display varied profiles. Some have great difficulty in syntax but relatively normal pragmatic performance and moderate difficulty with semantic skills, for example. Children with SLI present as widely varied and diverse group.

Children with SLI often have articulatory and phonological difficulties and/or speech sound disorders. They may have poor speech intelligibility and may exhibit phonological processes longer than typically developing children.

Learning abstract or figurative words is often hard for children with SLI. They frequently use concrete, not abstract, words to express themselves. For example, a child with SLI might say, “I’m mad,” instead of “I feel frustrated with this situation.”  The majority of children with SLI have marked morphological problems including the following:

  1. Perceptual problems. Children do not perceive morphological features as well as they do other features because those features are produced with less stress and lower intensity.
  2. Syntactic problems. The syntactic complexity involved in sentence comprehension and production may have a negative effect on morphology.
  3. Regular and irregular plural morphemes
  4. Possessive morphemes
  5. Present progressive –ing
  6. Third-person singular (e.g., “He plays ball”)
  7. Articles (a, an, the)
  8. Auxiliary and copula verbs (e.g., the auxiliary is in “She is running”; the copula is in “She is smart”)
  9. Comparatives and superlatives (e.g., -er in smaller and –est in smallest)
  10. Children with SLI may also show confusion with the following structures:
    1. Singular and plural forms of words
    2. Plural and singular forms of auxiliary and copula verbs (are, is)
    3. Subject case marking (him, he; her, she)
    4. Regular and irregular forms of plural and past tense morphemes

Children with SLI may have difficulty with the following aspects of pragmatic language skills, also known as the social use of language:

  1. Topic initiation
  2. Turn taking
  3. Topic maintenance
  4. Appropriate conversational repair strategies (e.g., asking, “What do you mean?” when a speaker’s utterances are not understood or changing one’s own productions when a listener fails to understand”
  5. Discourse and narrative skills
  6. Staying relevant during conversation

Young children with SLI are at risk for later problems with reading and writing. If a child demonstrates any of the aforementioned difficulties, they may present with a specific language impairment (SLI) and speech-language therapy may be warranted.



Roseberry-McKibbin, C., & Hegde, M. (2016). An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology. Austin, TX: Pro-ed.

Gabrielle Cormace MS CF-SLP


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