Developmental Language Models

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Developmental Language Models

Developmental Language Models are based on what is known about the science of language acquisition in typical development. A Developmental Model for Language Assessment and Intervention supports our understanding of “how” language is learned, the mechanisms for language learning. Furthermore, Developmental Language Models focus on what is appropriate for each developmental stage, rather than what is chronologically expected. They view the child as an agent of their learning, interacting with the environment to build new ideas, forge new comprehension and express new meanings.

True learning and communication are their own reward. When we make communicating easy, students learn that they are competent as communicators and are motivated to communicate further. — SEA Founders

  1. Language develops not because of any innate linguistic competence or because of strict reinforcement principles, but because human beings are motivated to interact socially and to develop concepts of self and others.
  2. The important elements of development are not abstract linguistic or cognitive structures or concrete verbal behaviors, but rather they are the phenomena of intentional and symbolic acts of speech, their conversational functions, their consequences for participants and their context-creating power and context-dependent properties (Dore, 1986).
  3. Language acquisition occurs in the context of dyadic, dynamic interactions, which are motivated by the child’s drive to develop a concept of self and to interact with others socially.
  4. All conversational partners (parents, teachers, teaching assistants, therapists) contribute significantly to the language acquisition process by adjusting their linguistic input to be compatible with the child’s developing linguistic and communication abilities. They do this by supplying a scaffold to allow the child to communicate despite primitive abilities (Bruner, 1978).

One contemporary Developmental Language Model, The Intentionality Model, is a foundational component to all learning at Soaring Eagle Academy. The Intentionality Model (Bloom and Tinker, 2001) is based on the work of Lois Bloom and Margaret Lahey (1978, 1988).

Intentionality contributes to development of language in these two ways:

  1. The child’s actions in the world, as well as his/her interpretation and expression of language, lead to the development of new representations or the mental contents of his/her mind.
  2. The child’s participation in the social world depends on and is promoted by these acts of expression and interpretation between the child and caregiver.

Further, engagement is “the child’s emotional and social directedness for determining what is relevant for learning and the motivation of learning” (p 14 Bloom and Tinker).

In our work at Soaring Eagle Academy, this work and these foundations have been instrumental in guiding us in creating a robust curriculum where students are able to experience and act upon their environment.

What is Language

Let’s begin with the question: “What is language?”

Lois Bloom and Margaret Lahey, describe language, “as a means to communicate and express ideas, representing objects, events and relationships in a systematic way where rules govern the combination of words and sentences.” Language further represents the shared knowledge of a community, or culture, and will vary based on the speakers within a region.

Language is a complex system that develops in the context of the social relationships of the child. Language goes beyond the production of “words” for it is the way in which we share ideas, share feelings and represent the contents of our minds to our communicative partners. Language is the way we make ourselves known to others.

Precursors to Language

  • Important precursors to language: In order to develop language, there are many critical precursors that emerge between 0-12 months of age, prior to the expression of first words. In the first year of life, the child is developing a foundation for communication based on developing capacities for intentionality, shared attention, affective engagement, reciprocity and the building of ideas and meaning. These are developed in the context of playful interaction with caring parents and caregivers, either through gestural, non-verbal affective exchanges or pre-verbal sound making.
    1. Building intentionality: Intentionality is a cornerstone for language development. This means supporting a child’s ability to experience themselves as competent communicators. As communicative partners, we want to accept any communication as intentional (eye gaze, gaze shifts between people or objects, facial expressions, body proximity, gestures – reaching, pointing, showing, vocalizations, and approximations of words) and give meaning to their early communication by responding and encouraging more of the same.
    2. Supporting shared attention: Shared attention happens when the child can bring something to your attention with curiosity and delight, as if to say, “Look!” Early on, children appeal for shared attention with another through gaze, gestures and sounds. You respond and together are sharing interest around the same idea, demonstrating “mutual engagement.” In DIR ®, we join the child around their interests (“following their lead”), and thus we are able to validate their experience and intention. As we support and sustain shared attention with the child, they in turn can share and expand on their interests further.
    3. Support sound making and social communication: By mirroring back, imitating with joy and variation of rhythm a child’s tone and volume, you help a child to understand that sounds and social communication are meaningful. By establishing a continuous flow of back and forth playful sound-making, you lay foundations for the flow and rhythm of communication central to social relationships.
    4. Support reciprocity: When children gaze lovingly at communicative partners, vocalize with enthusiasm and use their gestures and bodies to initiate and respond to their partners, they are engaged in the dance of reciprocity. Relationship formation and early communication development depends on reciprocity. Our responses to a child’s first stages of communication and intent give meaning to sound production, shared experience. We lay the foundation for their very first “circles of communication.”
    5. Support the development of ideas and meanings: Before children begin to use words to communicate, they spend time building a broad foundation of ideas and world knowledge. This knowledge (object permanence, being intentional in the world, understanding causality and symbolic play) is a pre-requisite to the use of early words. (Piaget 1955). We build ideas and meaning by starting with the contents of the child’s mind and expanding ideas based on what is meaningful and relevant to the child.

See section on Ideas and Meaning for more information.

Essential Components of Language Formation

Lois Bloom and Margaret Lahey define the elements of language through the intersection of “form, content, and use.” Lois Bloom and Erin Tinker further add “effort and engagement” as factors influencing language development. Comprehension is inherent within this model, but can be further defined and understood.

  1. Form:
    • The sounds of a language
    • The smallest speech sound that carries meaning (plural /s/, -ing, past tense -ed). The way we say words within a certain order to express meaning.
  2. Content is the meaning that is expressed through words. There are many categories of meaning that are expressed as we communicate with others (objects, actions, relations between things).
  3. Use:
    • The reasons why we talk (to comment, to get another to do what we want, to protest). How we consider another as we communicate with them (what information do they already know, what do they need to know, how do we adapt to different partners?) How we start, maintain and end communicative exchanges with another.
  4. Effort can be defined as the resources (cognitive process) that a child brings to any language learning exchange and the work it takes to acquire language.
  5. Engagement can be defined as the child’s social and emotional development and its impact on determining what is meaningful and relevant to learn when acquiring language.
  6. Comprehension can be defined as the ability to interpret and make sense of spoken or written language. (Miller and Paul, 1995). Bloom and Tinker further define the interpretation of spoken language by saying that “for interpretation at a minimum, the child must connect what is heard to what is already in mind, recall elements from memory that are associated with prior experiences of the words, and form a new intentional state representation. (Bloom and Tinker, 2001, p. 15)

See section on Comprehension to learn more.

How can we support a student’s growth in language development?

  1. Support the development and progression of FORM: Children can imitate sounds and words, even sentences without comprehending the meaning behind what they are saying. It is critical to remember that working on sounds alone does not support the development of language. Therefore, always working on sound production and combinations of words together with content that is at the appropriate level of development for the child is essential. Modeling the words within the communicative exchange allows the child an opportunity to attempt to say it, with success if they are able. Simultaneously, you are building comprehension because the child is introduced to the word in context at the exact time that they are experiencing the concept. Responding to the child’s intent is far more important than expecting multiple or more accurate sound/word productions, which does not build meaning and can lead to frustration in communication.
  2. Support and develop meaning around a range of CONTENT categories. Content categories (the meaning expressed through communication) include but are not limited to the following: recurrence (more, again), existence (events and nouns in the environment that you would share an interest in), non- existence (all gone), actions (open, stop, jump), locative actions (up, in), possession (my, mommy’s), attribution (wet, dirty, broken, hot), quantity (two, plural -s), temporal (and then, then) and causal (because, so). Create opportunities in the environment where there can be a lot of experiences around these content categories. Expand meaning and support comprehension growth by helping a child make connections in their environment. Avoid a focus on labels and instead focus on the relations between things in the child’s natural environment and their experience. A child learns about a ball by feeling it, holding it, experiencing its roundness and its ability to bounce. Pictures are unable to convey these important salient cues and may lack meaning for a child when used in isolation.
  3. Support and develop the USE of language. Communication should express a range of functions. Too often we promote in our children the ability to label objects or request needs and wants. By treating language as something to be “taught” rather than “experienced” in the context of relationship and interaction with others, children are not able to develop a full range of functions within communication. We want to support a child’s ability to comment, to regulate another’s behavior, to negate, to question, to inform, to pretend and to engage in extended conversation (discourse). Shared experience is how this starts. We can help children to comment in the context of shared experience by asking fewer questions, waiting longer for their initiation and commenting more ourselves in conjunction with affect cues. It is also helpful to communicate by taking turns naturally in communication rather than specifically telling a child when to take their turn or focusing on the teaching of rules for social communication. Communication is best when it occurs in natural contexts where the rewards of communication are natural consequences of the exchange rather than extrinsic motivators or rewards.
  4. Support and understand the EFFORT that the child is exerting in any communicative exchange. We want to send the message to our children that communicating is meaningful. Messages are received and things happen. Communication is power. The more effort the child has to put forth within the communicative exchange, the less the child will want to communicate in the future. Finding the “just right” challenge for any child is a critical piece. In addition, we must remember that a child only has a certain amount of resources to devote to language acquisition at any given time in their development. Because language development doesn’t exist within a vacuum, the development and effort that a child is devoting to the motor system, sensory system, visual and spatial systems, auditory system, emotional and cognitive systems needs to be acknowledged and accounted for within every therapeutic session.
  5. Support the child’s ENGAGEMENT in the communicative exchange. The DIR® model works to support the child’s ability to engage with parents/caregivers/therapists. This is critical for language development because once a child can be responsive to another, he is available to try and understand another’s actions and another’s words/sentences. Through engagement the child is available to the social world where language can be explored and interpreted with the help of significant others.
  6. Support the child’s comprehension in the communicative exchange. When working with children we can pair words with objects and actions that the child experiences at the very moment of experience in order to enhance making meaning and understanding. We use the “here and now” to support the student’s ability to use context to establish more meaning. We start by thinking about what ideas the student has and by teaching the next concept based on what we know about their developmental capacities.

Comprehension and Learning

When people talk about comprehension, it is often in the context of understanding vocabulary, following directions and/or answering “wh” questions.

At Soaring Eagle Academy, our view of comprehension is far more expansive. Comprehension is not simply the vocabulary that a student understands, nor is it their ability to follow discrete directions. This simplified view of comprehension can be detrimental to the very work we do with students every day. Rather, comprehension is broad and complex, encompassing many aspects of understanding. Comprehension takes into account what the student knows about social communication (when to respond to another), what the student knows about concepts and ideas (vocabulary knowledge) and what the student knows about how the words are said and what particular word order signifies.

At Soaring Eagle Academy we view comprehension as a cornerstone for any curriculum development. Language comprehension plays a critical role in any student’s capacity to understand their world, to understand how their world works and to understand how they can be a part of that world. When learning is meaningful and based on a student’s current level of understanding, anxiety and dysregulation decrease while connections between and among ideas and current knowledge increase.

Amy Weiss (2010) indicates that the ability to interpret verbal language is supported tremendously by nonverbal aspects of communication, i.e., “what is going on at the same time, who is speaking, what was previously said, what visual information is available.” The integration of nonverbal and verbal interpretation is often challenging for our students. They can often miss or misinterpret components of the message being conveyed by their partners.

When students don’t understand, they become more reliant on context – what is visually present in the environment. At Soaring Eagle Academy, we recognize that when students do not comprehend what is being asked of them, concepts they are asked to learn or what another is sharing with them, the use of context is critical. We use many visual supports to augment the verbal message. These include real photos of students and places within the school, real objects at hand in the interaction and real actions and exchanges that augment each auditory signal. Books, digital stories and video clips are also used to support a student’s understanding of concepts and experiences.

When students don’t have strategies to help them figure out meaning based on context, anxiety and dysregulation occurs. Our staff at Soaring Eagle Academy understand that when students become dysregulated, it is often because they do not understand what is being asked of them or where they are being asked to transition to. Visual supports, as mentioned above, as well as the use of language that is developmentally matched for each student, can tremendously decrease dysregulation caused by a lack of comprehension.

Ideas and Meaning and Learning

How do children develop ideas about the world? How do they make meaning as they interact in their world with significant communicative partners?

From the moment the child begins to act on their environment, they are developing ideas about the world. Piaget (1955) observed children problem solving with objects and toys, acting on objects in their environment, learning about object permanence and imitating significant others. Through these actions and interactions, children began to expand their ideas, leading to new ideas and new meanings.

Ideas and the origin of ideas are a critical component in language development. The child’s experience in the world is a critical aspect to the development of meanings. Meaning is what is relevant to the child (his or her needs, interests, present context, past history) as well as what is significant to the child (Katherine Nelson, 2007). Every interaction that a child has and every action that they perform in the world results in knowledge that becomes the foundation for language. This knowledge becomes the very thing that children talk about. Children talk about what they understand and what they know something about.

For students whose experience in the world has been limited based on their individual profile, their knowledge and ideas about the world are naturally limited. Their ideas, and therefore, what they talk about, are limited.

A student’s ability to make meaning in the world can be compromised due to motor planning challenges, visual spatial deficits, sensory processing differences and a lack of exploratory movement in one’s environment.

At Soaring Eagle Academy, we believe that the development of ideas and meanings is critical for learning. Many of our students have sensory systems that have not allowed them to experience the world in typical ways, and so our curriculum is designed to promote development by offering experiential and active participation (student as agent) in play and learning. Cause and effect, problem solving and opportunities for multiple experiences of the same concept/idea are offered every day during literacy, math, science and social studies lessons.

When students are active participants in their learning, their comprehension is most robust and their ability to understand and make meaning is easiest.

Soaring Eagle Academy teaches by beginning with what a student already has ideas about and then slowly expanding those ideas and that knowledge to become broader and more expansive.

Examples of Developmental Strategies for Language (Developed by Linda Cervenka, Sima Gerber and Michele Ricamato)

Shared Intentionality

Support student’s ability to understand others by:

  • Pointing out affect states during natural exchanges
  • Making reference to and calling attention to a range of other’s intentions
  • Slowing the pacing of the interaction
  • Model actions within natural interaction and DO NOT request or demand an action or response.

Support student’s ability to express intentions by:

  • Taking the time to observe and reflect on what the student is doing
  • Interpreting all behaviors as intentional and communicative
  • Responding contingently “as typically done” to the student’s actions, gestures, facial expressions
  • Encouraging use of natural eye gaze but not insisting eye regard

Support adult partners in…

  • Developing the ability to observe and reflect on what the student is doing
  • Understanding that they can move slowly within the interaction
  • Reading and understanding their student’s subtle cues
  • Utilizing interactions that naturally occur within the student’s day (i.e. snack time, sensory gym time) to support development
  • Persevering – Understanding that if they miss an opportunity to respond to a subtle intent there will always be another!

Ideas and Meaning

  • Follow the contents of the child’s mind in terms of exploring toys and objects and then gently add a new ‘meaning’ – e.g., from pushing the buttons on the phone to waiting for it to ring.
  • Use the focus of the child’s interests as the objects to search for or to play back and forth games with – e.g., hide the child’s favorite car first visibly and then under the blanket.
  • Help the child ‘make sense’ of the objects in his or her life by using them in therapy (as well as at home) – e.g., bring the child’s blanket to therapy and use it to cover Mommy and the favorite car.
  • Hide the child’s favorite toys in different places in the room (the cabinet, the shelf, the plastic bottle) to entice the child to explore and act on objects.
  • Play the child’s favorite games over and over and eventually (but not too quickly) up the ante….wait, delay, anticipate.


  • Come as close to the child’s interests and the contents of their mind while sharing an experience with them. Talk about what they are looking at, what they are doing, what they are acting on within the session.
  • Reduce the complexity of your language input but maintain the grammar of the language, the melody and the interactive flow of communication.
  • Use affect, facial expressions and gestures to support understanding by augmenting the linguistic signal.
  • Target particular words and phrases for comprehension work based on developmental information.
  • Embed comprehension work in contexts that are familiar to the child and affectively strong (meaningful).
  • Use visual supports that are meaningful to the child (real photos, real items, pictures) to support linguistic information that may be fleeting.
  • Pair language with the child’s actions; timing and contextual support (where these phrases naturally occur) are critical at early stages.
  • Present targeted language in many familiar contexts to promote learning.


  • Activities to improve abstract thinking skills within play and dialogue
  • Activities that incorporate emotional themes into academic contexts
  • Problem solving with peers during conflicts
  • Understanding questions (why, how, when), concepts of time, comparing and contrasting of ideas, anticipating the feelings of others, predicting, ability to infer.

Motor Performance

  • Neuromotor
    • Coordination of motor and cognitive tasks
  • Fine motor
    • Grasps an object (age 4 months)
    • Bring both hands together (age 4 months)
    • Feed herself a cracker (age 8 months)
    • Passes an object from one hand to another (age 8 months)
    • Can pick up a tiny object (11 months)
    • Pulls toys with strings
    • Builds tower of 6 blocks
    • Pretends to push a train made out of three blocks after watching an adult do so
    • Strings 1-4 large beads
    • One hand starts to be dominant
    • Holds crayon with the whole hand (fingers straight)
    • Imitates an adult making circular strokes or dots (The child will make a circle or dots after watching an adult do so.)
    • Copies horizontal and vertical lines
    • Uses spoon well
    • Jumps in place with both feet
    • Builds tower of nine blocks
    • Snips with scissors
    • Completes 5-6 piece puzzle
    • Holds crayon with three fingers
    • Copies circle (can make a circle when he or she sees another one on a paper)
    • Imitates cross (can make a cross after watching an adult draw one)
    • Draws person with head
    • Uses spoon and fork properly (without making a “big” mess)
    • Builds tower with 10 blocks
    • Strings small beads
    • Holds writing utensil with three fingers
    • Copies square
    • Draws person with head, feet and body – 30 minute attention span (5-10 minutes per activity)
    • Dress/Undress independently (except for closings, i.e. buttons, zippers)
    • Crosses midline
    • Does not switch hands in the middle of an activity
    • Clear dominance in right-handed children
    • Builds tower 12 blocks
    • Can build three steps out of six blocks
    • Draws angled lines and triangle
    • Draws a person with head, body, legs and face
    • Can color in lines
    • Cuts on straight lines
    • Holds knife in dominant hand
    • Draws diamond
    • Cuts with knife
    • Holds writing utensil with three fingers with movement in the fingers
    • Ties shoelaces
  • Gross motor
    • Lifts head while lying on stomach
    • Rolls over one way
    • Keeps head level with body when pulled to a sitting position
    • Rolls over both ways
    • Sits without support
    • Gets into a sitting position from stomach
    • Stands holding on to someone or something
    • Pulls up to standing position from sitting position
    • Can walk holding onto furniture
    • Walks and runs on full feet
    • Climbs on furniture to look out the window and gets down
    • Climbs stairs holding on with two feet on each stair
    • Assists in dressing
    • Jumps in place with both feet
    • Kicks stationary ball
    • Rides tricycle
    • Stands on one foot for 2 seconds
    • Swings on swing when stated in motion
    • Hops on one foot 1-3 times
    • Plays catch with large ball
    • Good control of tricycle (curves and spins)
    • Walks on straight line
    • Can climb steps holding an object
    • Hops on each foot three times
    • Stands on one foot 8-10 seconds
    • Rides two wheeler with training wheels
    • Can swing by himself
    • Bounces and catches tennis ball
    • Stands on one foot with eyes closed for 3 seconds
    • Walks on line in heel-toe fashion
    • Skips
    • Rides bicycle without training wheels
    • Jumps rope
    • Catches and bounces tennis ball

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