Language for Learning for Students with Autism

and/or Developmental Disabilities 


Language for Learning is a Direct Instruction program and as such falls under the ABA umbrella. This means that it is carefully scripted, written using a skill sequence, uses multiple examples to teach concepts and plans for generalization. It is sold by SRA (Science Research Associates). Unfortunately, only those affiliated with a school in the U.S. are able to order this way. In Canada, SRA is represented by McGraw Hill. You can either find a District Representative or order online (for substantially more than the US School price.) There is a 2008 edition available as well as the older version, now designated as the 1999 edition. Also read my short practical review of use in the classroom.


Direct Instruction programs are not meant to be implemented without modeling, hands on training and instruction from an experienced trainer. However, you can be successful by carefully reading the material, rehearsing the signals and script to fluency prior to working with children and getting feedback by taping yourself and or asking a colleague to watch. There are checklists for self-evaluation which you should use frequently. Practice makes perfect and will allow you freedom to adapt the material for individual learning.


Martin Kozloff from the University of North Carolina has written several fact sheets to help individuals implementing Language for Learning or other DI programs: Self-Evaluation and Instruction Tips.


Who Is Able to Benefit From Language For Learning?


According to Z. Engelmann there are 5 prerequisites for using Language for Learning. The student should be able to

    • imitate a word of phrase spoken by an adult
    • respond to questions such as "whatís this?" or "What are you doing?í - or be able to learn to do so quickly
    • respond to simple yes/no question e.g., "Are you standing?"
    • point to and label common objects such as a door and complete simple actions such as "sitting."
    • describe pictures of objects and actions using the same words that are used to name actual objects and actions.


However, not all our students met these prerequisites when they started. We grouped these students together and used the Language for Learning format to extend and generalize their Intensive Teaching programs. They were able to take part in the same activities as their peers but at a different level.


Getting Started


You have been lucky enough to find or purchase a set of the Language for Learning manuals. Whatís next?


Take some time to go through Books A-D and read through the Teacherís Manual. It is very important to understand the format patterns, how to use the hand signals, how to hold the book etc.


Print out the Placement Test which is found on the SRA website. I have found that it works best to print an extra set of pictures and paste them on separate pages, the test seems to flow better. You are not allowed to prompt or give any assistance on the test, but do give praise for answering, sitting properly, etc. Make sure that you understand the criteria for stopping the test - there is no point in continuing once the student has made the maximum allowed errors.


It is important to place students who are at similar language levels together. Do not try and push or hold back students for the convenience of the instructor. You will be able to change groupings as you progress through the program. If you do have a student who could benefit from extra practice and you know really enjoys it, then you could have him or her work with a lower level student as a peer tutor.


Daily instruction is best, three times a week is probably minimum for progress to occur. You may want to begin with a shorter time and extend it as studentís attending and responding skills increase. Set criteria for mastery of each exercise in a lesson and collect data on progress, you may have to change frequency, wait time, prompts, reinforcement etc. if your student (s) does not seem to be learning a particular target skill. (see Download page for L4L Data Collection sheet.) Be patient as acquisition rates do increase as the student learns how to learn in this format.


It is important to take the concepts you are learning in L4L into the real world. If you are teaching names of objects in pictures, go for a hunt and find them in the classroom or neighbourhood. Have fun with the program. After the format has been established mix up the visual and auditory signals that you use (especially if you are working with older students). You might even be able to use facial prompts such as raising your eyebrows to signal an answer.


If you are working with one student be sure to insist that they attend to the signals rather than answering at will (an easy situation to fall into). If you can arrange to have two students for at least some of the time it will help group attending skills, students taught solely on their own tend not to listen for their name and answer every question all the time.


Some Students who have benefitted

from Language for Learning


  • L. has a diagnosis of autism and started at age eleven in the Language for Learning program with minimal expressive or receptive language (less than ten words or commands). She had always been taught in a one to one setting (she had not been included in any classroom) and did not display the prerequisite skills for starting Language for Learning. She worked in a group of 2 students on the first four lessons for 15 to 20 minutes every day for an entire school year. At the end of the year she knew her first and last name, the school she attended, her teachers name, could follow all the receptive commands and could put together a few four word sentences. These skills generalized to the classroom and into her home as well.
  • M. also has an autism diagnosis but received intensive early intervention. He began at age 8 in Language for Thinking. He had age-appropriate verbal skills but was not always fluent. We did one lesson per week for a year. We alternated roles occasionally with T becoming the instructor. At the end of the year his speech was more fluent and he had a strong understanding of synonyms, antonyms, analogies and how to classify objects. We stopped the program at the end of the school year.
  • D. was a 14 year old boy who arrived in Canada from Iran with minimal English language skills and an vague history of delay. Formal testing and identification cannot take place until a student has some language instruction so D. was enrolled into a beginner ESL class. This class was too advanced for him so it was decided to additionally place him into an Language for Learning group. In this setting D. learned basic English vocabulary and had many opportunities to speak in a safe environment. He became comfortable with English far quicker than any of us expected. By the end of the year he was able to participate more successfully in the beginner ESL classes.


Using Language for Learning in School Settings

Writing the IEP


Language for Learning can be used in a one to one setting or a small group. Students with more limited skills should be given opportunities to learn in individual or very small groups first. Language for Learning targets language, comprehension, concept formation, attending to the teacher, listening and following instruction skills. These are areas in which most students with ASD/developmental disabilities show delays or deficits. The use of Language for Learning should be written into the studentís IEP and can be used as a strategy to meet objectives such as:

  • Student will increase average length of utterances from 2 to 4 words.
  • Student will speak with improved fluency and prosody as measured by monthly recorded language samples.


Language for Learning can also be used along with Intensive Teaching and NET to target many IEP objectives established by using the ABLLS-R (Partington, 2006.)


A - Cooperation and Reinforcer Effectiveness

Language for Learning can be used as an activity to teach and support skills in almost all the tasks in this area. For example:

  • A7 - The student will be able to demonstrate and use skills learned with one instructor when working with other instructors.
  • A8 - When an instructor is attempting to engage the student in learning activities, the student will wait calmly, remain generally oriented towards the instructor and materials, and will keep his hands away from the instructional materials until an instruction is presented. (Workbook instruction)
  • A17 - The student will be able to wait appropriately if a reinforcer is not delivered immediately following a behavior.


C - Receptive Language

Students need some receptive language skills before they will be successful using Language for Learning. However, we used L4L with students who had very minimal skills, using full prompting to start, very potent reinforcers and collected data to analyze our teaching. Although progress was slow, all students did learn.

  • C9 - The student will comply with instruction to do a simple motor task (eg. standup, sit down)
  • C15 - The student will be able to follow directions to touch parts of his own body.
  • C17 - The student will be able to select one of six or more pictures when asked.
  • C26 - The student will be able to follow hand signals from an adult.


G - Labeling

  • G3 - The student will label people in his environment.
  • G4 - The student will label pictures of items which are commonly found in his environment.
  • G5 - The student will label common body parts on himself or others.
  • G6 - The student will label clothing items.
  • G7 - The student will label common actions.
  • G8 - The student will label pictures of common actions.
  • G9 - The student will be able to label known items in quick succession.
  • And so on ...


H - Intraverbal

  • H5 - The student will be able to provide answers to questions regarding personal information.
  • H6 - The student will be able to fill in the remaining word of a phrase describing an ongoing activity.
  • H10 - 13 - The student will be able to answer what and where questions regarding items.
  • H14 - the student will fill in the remaining word of a phrase to name an item of a specified class of items.
  • And so on ...


J - Syntax and Grammar

Language for Learning is an excellent tool to use in order to increase the number and form of words a student can use including syntax, articles, plurals, pronouns, negatives etc. This is especially important when a student is not receiving SLP support either at school or home.

  • J1 - The student will be able to speak in phrases or sentences of up to at least five words.
  • J2 - The student will be able to combine words in phrases or sentences using correct word order.
  • J3 - The student will be able to include articles (a, an, they) when speaking in phrases or sentences.
  • And so on ...


L - Social Interactions

  • Language for Learning may be one of the first group activities a student takes part in.
  • L1 - The student will engage in appropriate physical interaction behavior while in close physical proximity with peers or siblings.
  • L8 - The student will be able to follow simple known directions provided by another individual.
  • L9 - The attend to and imitate the physical and verbal behaviour of peers.


M - Group Instruction

Again, Language for Learning is an excellent structured format for encouraging group instruction skills.

  • M1 - The student will sit without engaging in disruptive behavior during small group instruction.
  • M3 - The student will attend to a teacher during small group instruction.
  • M5 - The student will follow instructions presented to a group of students.


Helpful Website Resources


Direct Instruction movie clips - Very helpful short clips on the Association for Direct Instruction website which show teachers working with students and provide instructions and explanations for some of the most important features of Direct Instruction such as the use of praise, error correction and signals.


2007 National Autism Conference - Using Direct Instruction to Teach Language and Reading presented by Cathy Watkins. This is an excellent video presentation including a handout which focuses on Reading Mastery and Language for Learning. There is an excellent clip almost at the end which shows the remarkable improvement in verbal skills of a young man that the presenter worked with.


Bob MacMillan is an associate professor in Special Education at Bridgewater State College. He teaches a class called Teaching Students with Special Needs Through Direct and Explicit Instruction has an excellent page of resources on Direct Instruction here.


SRA also has some Sample Video Clips from their Teaching Tutor CD series.