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The Scheme

The Derbyshire Language Scheme is a system of language intervention intended for children who have difficulties in developing language skills. It consists of two Teaching Manuals, a collection of language tests and forms to record a child's progress.

The Teaching Manuals contain descriptions of individual and group activities aimed at improving a child's use and understanding of language. They start at a low level where it is presumed that the child has no comprehension of language and no expressive language ability. From this point the syllabus moves in small steps to a level where the child is expected to follow a sequence of two commands after hearing them once only (e.g. Put your colouring book on the table, and fetch me your plimsolls). The child's expression should have progressed to a point where a simple narrative can be related (e.g. I went to the park with my mummy, and fed the ducks. My brother came with… etc). There should be several types of complex sentences in use, i.e. those with more than one main verb (e.g. She fell down 'cos she didn't see the box. Lock the door so he can't get out, etc).

The Scheme is made up of teaching activities linked to approximately two hundred language objectives. The format allows a teacher to make up an individual education plan consisting of any combination of objectives, based on an assessment of the child's language skills.

It is usual to monitor the progress of children through the Scheme. Individual 'Progress Record' booklets are provided which list all the language objectives. Once teachers have assessed a child, the results can be entered in the booklet. This provides them with an overview of the child's skills allowing them to select appropriate teaching targets.

Each objective shown is cross referenced to the Teaching Manuals. The teacher can therefore immediately locate activities for intervention.

The language syllabus of the Scheme is split into three main sections. The first section aims at teaching a minimum vocabulary to a child who is limited to single words. The second aims at encouraging the child to combine words in simple sentences, moving from two word combinations up to sentences around four to six words in length. The third and final section is concerned with the child's ability to use different verb forms, pronouns, the definite article, and other aspects of grammar. The content of these sections and the teaching strategies suggested in the teaching manual are covered in more detail in the remainder of this article.

Early Vocabulary Stage - SINGLE WORD LEVEL

This is intended for children who have very limited comprehension and expression or perhaps none at all. It assumes that the children are at an early developmental level, highly distractible and in need of teaching material and techniques which bear this in mind. For example it is presumed that the earliest teaching activities must be geared to the real world, everyday objects, and the activities of the children being taught. Representational play, such as appreciation of picture material and doll play are gradually introduced as the language syllabus is covered. This stage therefore has several parallel objectives: development of language, play and attention span.

It aims at improving the children's comprehension and expression of names of everyday objects, simple commands, greetings, words such as 'all-gone', 'no', 'again' etc. The range of vocabulary is that which could be expected from normal children at the single word stage. The teaching tries to reflect the type of functions these utterances are likely to serve for very young children. For instance the names of everyday objects are more likely to be elicited when children first see an object, or in the course of playing with it. It is unlikely that early vocabulary will be used to request objects, or as a reply to 'what-is-it?' Teaching activities therefore involve an element of surprise, a novel method of presentation, or aim at eliciting the vocabulary in the course of a more general play activity.

The comprehension activities at this stage and at every other level of the scheme do not depend on a verbal response. The children are required to carry out some simple activity. For instance in teaching simple commands the children's comprehension would be judged by their ability to respond correctly to commands such as 'Sit down!' 'Come here' etc.

In the teaching of names of everyday objects the teacher might request a particular item during the course of a play activity 'Give me (teacher holding out hand) the ball' or, when covering names of body parts 'Touch your nose! Touch your mouth!' etc.

These types of 'comprehension only' activities allow the teacher to provide an extensive programme of language work with children who have extremely limited expressive language. The children could in fact be moved in small steps through a progression of increasingly difficulty 'comprehension only' activities until they could respond to a sequence of two commands.

The provision of this type of activity therefore allows the teacher to design an intervention programme which is tailored to the children's level of understanding and a separate programme geared to their expressive language ability. The teacher's detailed knowledge of the children's comprehension also provides useful background information when deciding on the vocabulary to encourage in expressive language.

Single Word Level is split into three teaching groups: Pre-language, Early Vocabulary, and Harder Vocabulary. Each group has a range of different objectives, moving from pre-lingual activities to those aimed at harder vocabulary and representational material, i.e. line drawings, miniature toys etc.

The overall progression starts with Pre-Language and moves to Harder Vocabulary, which continues to be taught during the Simple Sentence Stage. There is no progression within a teaching group. In Early Vocabulary, for instance one could select any combination of objectives which fit together naturally. For instance, in the context of doll play, a teacher could cover 'Greetings' (Say Hello to Teddy, etc), 'Body Parts' (It's Teddy's bath time - Let's wash Teddy's hands, Now Teddy's feet etc) 'Food and Eating Vocabulary' (Teddy's clean now. Time for tea. Give Teddy a drink, now a biscuit, etc) The game, as far as the child is concerned, should be a play activity. The objectives are structured, but this does not mean that the teaching takes the form of a repetitive drill. Motivation is crucial, not something to be considered as an afterthought. The teaching activities suggested are intended to be sufficiently free and enjoyable that only the teacher is aware that they form part of a carefully structured programme.

The language skills which would place a child in the last teaching group of the Single Word Level are comprehension of 50 to 60 nouns, 20 or so verbs, and other words such as 'No' 'More' 'Again' etc. It is expected that the child's expressive vocabulary would be considerably larger although it should include the core vocabulary taught for comprehension.

As mentioned earlier comprehension and expression can be programmed separately. A child may therefore be participating in comprehension activities from the next section, - Simple Sentences whilst still requiring expressive language work at a Single Word Level.

There is a natural overlap between adjacent teaching groups in the scheme and children's programmes are generally made up of activities drawn from more than one group. A child on the last teaching group of Single Word Level is probably participating in activities from the first teaching group at the Simple Sentence Stage. More than this, it is not assumed that a child must follow the exact sequence shown in the Progress Record Booklet. There can be substantial variations in individual language development and the teacher is expected to choose activities which are appropriate to the child's pattern of skills regardless of where they appear in the 'normal' teaching sequence.

Simple Sentence Stage - TWO TO FOUR WORD LEVEL

The easiest comprehension activities at this level require a child to respond correctly to a command which contains two verbal concepts, e.g. Where's teddy's nose? The sequence for comprehension takes a child across a range of different types of sentence all at approximately the same level of difficulty. These would form a single teaching group. The next teaching group would contain a similar range of sentences which are considered to be slightly harder. In all there are eight such teaching groups for comprehension of Simple Sentences.

Expressive language objectives are organised into seven teaching groups starting with two word combinations which appear early in normal development . The child covers a range of different sentence types of increasing length. Aspects of grammar, such as verb forms, pronouns etc form a very small proportion of the teaching at this level.

A teaching session for a child who is just beginning to understand requests from the Simple Sentence Stage might take the form of a doll's tea party. The teacher uses different types of request, all roughly at the same level of comprehension difficulty but only expects single word utterances from the child,

Requests addressed to child - 'Give me dolly's cup', 'teddy's plate etc 'Put the biscuits on the table' 'Give teddy a drink' etc.

Utterances encouraged : Names of food, crockery, cutlery, names of the owner of an object (e.g. Whose plate is this?) Negatives (Is this for teddy? - No!)

The situation is intended to provide a natural context for the utterances , as well as one in which the teacher can pitch the requests at such a level that the children are provided with frequent success, and occasionally pushed to the limit of their language ability. This tea party activity is one which many nursery and infant teachers would use in a non-directive way. The major difference here is that the teacher has a clear idea of the language objectives that are to be covered.

The ability to control the contextual and gestural cues when assessing or teaching comprehension targets is an acquired skill, as is the ability to elicit particular types of utterance from a child. The DLS describes techniques which have been found to be effective for both these purposes. It is not just a question of choosing an enjoyable play activity, but of designing it as a structured language session.

Many of the techniques are transferable, that is, once they have been used for one activity they can immediately be utilised for different language objectives. For example, the teacher is trying to elicit a two word combination 'gone' or 'all-gone' plus another word. However the child has a very poor short-term memory. If the object is removed then although the child may say 'Gone!', the name of the object is likely to have been forgotten. A game is therefore used in which the child finds objects in a box or bag and places them on matching pictures (i.e. A real child's shoe is placed on a picture of a shoe). The teacher then covers the child's eyes and removes one of the objects. The child no longer has to remember what has gone, there is a visual cue. In this context the utterance 'shoe gone' is much easier to elicit.

The teaching activity aimed at eliciting the past tense uses a similar technique. Children seem to find it easier when they first learn to use a past tense to use it to describe events where the result of an action is still visible and hence providing them with a reminder of the event. (e.g. What happened to your bricks? 'Fell down'). The Scheme makes extensive use of visual cues and other techniques which aim at simplifying the learning task so the children can focus on language. Minor changes in an activity can often have a major effect on the children's ability to understand or express themselves.

Children at the final level of the Simple Sentence Stage should be able to understand and use a wide range of different types of sentence. These should include commands (Shut the door!), descriptions (John shutting the door), questions (Where the sticky tape?) and negatives (Can't do it!). A child's expressive language should include sentences around four to six words in length containing a limited range of verb forms, pronouns, prepositions,

e.g. Read that story again, daddy! My mummy going work now. What you do Daddy?

That not my football!

The child would be expected to be able to follow commands with a fairly high level of information (e.g. 'Put the dirty cups on the kitchen table')

Grammar and complex sentences stage - LEVELS FIVE TO TEN

In the first two sections of the Scheme there is a fairly even division between activities for comprehension and expression, at this Stage however expressive language activities predominate. There are advanced comprehension activities, but most of the teaching aims at improving aspects of expressive language such as the use of different verb forms, pronouns, more mature forms of questions and negatives and the use of some complex sentences.

For example a child, who was saying 'My mummy going work now' would be encouraged to use 'is' i.e. ''My mummy is going to work now'. 'What you do daddy?' would move through a series of steps to 'What are you doing daddy?' The teaching progressions for expressive language are graded in difficulty as are the comprehension activities. The latter take a child from comprehension of commands which involve two similar separate actions on the part of the child (Put the knife and spoon on the plate) to a sequence of commands which have a natural connection (Put the pencil in the box and close it) and finally to commands which have no natural link (put your socks in the cupboard, and bring me the vacuum cleaner).

There are six groups of teaching activities each containing a mixture of objectives - some verb forms, prepositions, negatives, questions etc. A child's programme at any time would therefore contain a range of different objectives.

The teaching activities are selected to provide a natural context for the language being taught. For instance if the non-contracted form of 'is' was the focus of the activity, then it should be elicited in an utterance where a normal child is likely to use it.

'Is' is likely to be used in questions 'Is it raining?', or for emphasis. 'That's not your coat!' 'It is!' and in certain other specific circumstances. The teaching activities described in the manual use the 'is' for emphasis

In summary then, the DLS is a highly programmed approach to structured language teaching. It was originally designed for children with severe learning difficulties. However the techniques have been found equally useful with children who have far milder learning disabilities. It is in use with children with mild language delay, hearing impairment etc.

The format allows a teacher to modify both the teaching activities and the pace of presentation to suit the level of ability and interests of the children. The teacher is always provided with a clear explanation of the reasoning behind the teaching objectives and techniques. It is thus possible to improvise activities which attempt to attain the same objectives as those listed in the Teaching Manual once the principles are understood.

In schools where the scheme has been in use for some time, teachers although retaining the basic structure of the scheme and some of the activities from the Teaching Manual, generally invent new activities as they become more and more familiar with the approach. It is a strategy of teaching, and does not therefore depend on specific 'lessons'. The DLS is intended to act as an organising framework as well as a source of teaching ideas.

More information about the Scheme can be obtained from Dr Mark Masidlover CPsychol, please email

©2004-2024 Dr M. Masidlover