Autism, Oral Language, & Missing Curriculum: Is DI the Answer?

By Jennifer Fisahn, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

If you are (or ever were) a public school special education teacher in a self-contained autism classroom, chances are you have had to beg for, borrow, and sometimes steal curricular materials.  Well-intentioned administrators and teachers would show up at your classroom door bearing gifts such as components of reading programs no longer used in your district, photo-copied teacher manuals (without student materials), a few student workbooks on a variety of levels, sock puppets that were created to teach a particular short vowel sound, or certain blow-up people that had cute letter names.  You likely visited various closets that held a hodgepodge of educational materials and shuttled a few select finds back to your classroom.  Magically, all of this ‘stuff’ meshed together perfectly so you could teach each and every student how to read and comprehend regardless of their underlying language skill set.  Thankfully, it provided you with a scope and sequence of well-designed lessons as well as a way to monitor individual student progress…right?  NOT!

For those of us utilizing the principles of ABA in the classroom, the procedures derived from behavior analysis inform how we teach and our responsibility to target behaviors for change that are socially significant inform what we teach.  The latter can be troublesome when it comes to academic programming.  With limited research regarding interventions that address academic development for students with autism (Plavnick, Marchand-Martella, Martella, Thompson, & Wood 2015), it can be difficult for school districts to choose appropriate academic curriculum packages to purchase.  Modifying the available reading curriculum, printing worksheets from the web to teach skills such as digraphs and main idea, or utilizing the magical items given to you as listed above is probably not the answer.  Finding the answer may first require that you ask this question:

Does the student have the underlying oral language skills necessary to support reading AND comprehension?

The answer to this question may be no…regardless of how many sight words that the student can read!  Even if you have programmed for an appropriate integration of discrete trial training (DTT) and natural environment training (NET) to teach language and related skills, students may be missing the oral language skills and behaviors necessary in order to succeed in academic areas.  Creating a curriculum that addresses these missing skills with proper scope and sequence would be difficult.

The Direct Instruction (DI) program, Language for Learning, may offer educators an option for teaching this missing skill set to students with autism.  Language for Learning is a comprehensive oral language program that utilizes a DI approach to teach a wide range of concepts and skills (Engelmann & Osborne 1999).  Concepts and skills are organized into the following groups:

  • Basic actions
  • Description of objects
  • Information and background knowledge
  • Instructional words and problem-solving concepts
  • Classification
  • Problem-solving strategies and applications

The Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) defines DI as:

A systematic approach to teaching and maintaining basic academic skills. It involves the use of carefully designed curriculum with detailed sequences of instruction including learning modules that students must master before advancing to the next level. Students are taught individually or in small groups that are made up of students with similar academic skills. Instructors follow a script for presenting materials, requiring frequent responses from students, minimizing errors, and giving positive reinforcement (such as praise) for correct responding.

Scripted presentation materials provide students with instruction that is well-designed while removing the responsibility for teachers to design, trial, and continuously re-define instruction (Watkins & Slocum 2004).  This is particularly beneficial to public school teachers who are already short on time.

While there are numerous features of DI that would fit well within an ABA program, DI does not meet criteria as an evidence-based practice for children with autism.  The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders (Wong et al. 2013) identified direct instruction as a “focused intervention practice with some support.” DI was represented by a sufficient number of acceptable studies demonstrating efficacy (Flores & Ganz 2007; Ganz & Flores 2009); however, the studies were conducted by only one research group.   In a review of the research literature on the effectiveness of teaching academic skills to students with autism using explicit and systematic scripted (ESS) programs, Plavnick et al. (2014) offered several suggestions regarding future research on the topic.  These suggestions included implementing full programs rather than focusing on portions or specific exercises, and clearly defining modifications or adaptions made to scripted programs or manuals to better support replication in applied settings.

In an attempt to build upon and extend the research, Shillingsburg, Bowen, Peterman, & Gayman (2015) evaluated the effectiveness of the complete DI Language for Learning curriculum for teaching language skills to 18 children diagnosed with autism.  Modifications to the standard Language for Learning program outlined in the study included utilizing a one-to-one-teaching arrangement, omitting or accommodating exercises that required group participation, individualizing schedules of reinforcement, and defining a response interval (within 5 seconds of the instruction).  The authors reported that immediate post-intervention language scores were significantly higher than pre-intervention scores.  These scores remained for up to 6 to 8 months following the intervention (Shillingsburg et al. 2015).

While these results are promising, behavior analytic teachers in public schools continue to encounter roadblocks when seeking effective academic curriculum for students with autism.  The lack of evidence-based academic programs is probably the biggest one of all.  It is hoped that continued research will provide more information about DI and its potential academic benefit for students with autism.  Until then, here are a few suggestions for presenting the DI Language for Learning program to district curriculum personnel for potential adoption:

  1. Provide a rationale – Since school districts are likely to have more than a few adopted reading programs, and possibly no adopted oral language programs, Language for Learning may be more readily accepted as necessary. Consider gathering criterion-referenced language assessment profiles (i.e., VB-MAPP) to illustrate individual student needs. Provide the scope and sequence for Language for Learning and discuss how the program can potentially meet the specific needs of your students.  A copy of the placement test  can also come in handy!
  2. Provide the research – Gather the relevant research citations regarding the DI Language for Learning program and its effectiveness for students with autism and be prepared to discuss the findings. Be honest about how DI stacks up against interventions considered evidence-based for children with autism.
  3. Demonstrate a lesson – Print out a sample lesson and demonstrate it for curriculum personnel. Practice prior to demonstrating!
  4. Have a plan – Outline a plan for implementation in the event that your district decides to adopt the Language for Learning Curriculum. Plans can include staff training needs, daily scheduling requirements, sample IEP goals, and data-collection procedures.  You can also mention how you would better-prepare your students for the program by pre-teaching necessary signals during discrete trial training.

Check out the research above for additional information and possible benefits and let us know what you think about DI for students with autism.  Does your district utilize the DI Language for Learning curriculum?  If so, let us know!  Also, consider subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!



Engelmann, S., & Osborne, J. (1999). Language for learning: Teacher’s guide.

Columbus, OH: SRA.

Flores, M. M., & Ganz, J. B. (2007). Effectiveness of direct instruction for teaching statement inference, use of facts, and analogies to students with developmental disabilities and reading delays. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 22(4), 244-251. doi: 10.1177/10883576070220040601

Ganz, J. B., & Flores, M. M. (2009). The effectiveness of direct instruction for teaching language to children with autism spectrum disorders: Identifying materials. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(1), 75-83. doi: 10.1007/s10803-008-0602-6

Plavnick, J. B., Marchand-Martella, N. E., Martella, R. C., Thompson, J. L., & Wood, A. L (2015). A Review of Explicit and Systematic Scripted Instructional Programs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders2(1), 55-66.

Shillingsburg, M. A., Bowen, C. N., Peterman, R. K., & Gayman, M. D. (2015). Effectiveness of the Direct Instruction Language for Learning curriculum among children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 1088357614532498.

Watkins, C. L., Slocum, T. A., & Spencer, T. D. (2011). Direct Instruction: relevance and applications to behavioral autism treatment. In E. A. Mayville & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Behavioral foundations of effective autism treatment (pp. 297–319). NY: Cornwall-on-Hudson.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K., Cox, A.W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., & Schultz, T. R.(2013). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice ReviewGroup.


Jennifer FishanJennifer Fisahn, M.Ed., BCBA has worked with individuals with autism and their families for seventeen years.  She is a certified Teacher of the Handicapped, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®), and parent of a child with autism.  Jennifer has public school experience teaching preschool through high-school aged students as well as extensive experience as a school district consultant, direct service provider and supervisor for home-based ABA programs.  She currently serves as the training coordinator for the Foundation for Autism Training and Education (FATE) and conducts workshops on the topics of ABA and autism.  Jennifer regularly contributes to a resource-rich blog for teachers, therapists, and caregivers and also created the S.T.A.R.S. Network, a group aimed at supporting teachers and paraprofessionals working with individuals with autism.  You can contact her at [email protected].

2 Comments on "Autism, Oral Language, & Missing Curriculum: Is DI the Answer?"

  1. I used this program in my classroom a few years ago. I had to dig it out of a cabinet, but all the pieces were there and it was amazing. I was also able to easily train paraprofessional staff to use it with small groups.

  2. Is there a version of this for non-verbal students?

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