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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Alternative Curricula Part Two: ABLLS-R

Welcome back to the second part of our series on alternative curricula!  Today I am going to be discussing the ABLLS-R.   

The ABLLS-R is an abbreviation for the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills - Revised.  The original ABLLS was developed by James W. Partington, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Mark L. Sundberg, Ph.D, BCBA-D and is based on B.F.Skinner's analysis of verbal behaviour and the theoretical work of several others since Skinner's book.  Prior to creating the ABLLS, Sundberg and Partington wrote "Teaching Language to Children with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities" which described how to create an intervention program based on Verbal Behaviour Analysis.  This book and the subsequent ABLLS books are written for those who already have knowledge and training in Applied Behaviour Analysis and various types of augmentative communication systems.  The ABLLS was updated (Revised) in 2006 by Dr. Partington. The revised version incorporates many new task items and provides a more specific sequence in the developmental order of items within the various skill areas.

What is the ABLLS-R?

The revised assessment of basic language and learning skills (ABLLS-R) is an assessment tool, curriculum guide, and skills-tracking system used to help guide the instruction of language and critical learning skills for children with autism or other developmental disabilities. It is the most commonly used curriculum in behavioural intervention programs for children with autism and therefore, understanding technical aspects of behavior analysis and Skinner's Verbal Behavior are important to a robust understanding of the ABLLS-R.

The ABLLS-R provides a review of 544 skills from 25 skill areas including language, social interaction, self-help, academic and motor skills that most typically developing children acquire prior to entering and during kindergarten.  It provides both parents and professionals with criterion-referenced information regarding a child’s current skills, and provides a curriculum that can serve as a basis for the selection of educational objectives.  It is not a diagnostic device; it does not compare the child to norms or the performance of other children.

The ABLLS-R comprises two documents. The ABLLS-R Protocol is used to score the child’s performance on the task items and provides 15 appendices that allow for the tracking of a variety of specific skills that are included in the assessment. The ABLLS-R Guide provides information about the features of the ABLLS-R, how to correctly score items, and how to develop Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and objectives that clearly define and target the learning needs of a student.

The ABLLS-R assesses the strengths and weaknesses of an individual in each of the 25 skill sets. Each skill set is broken down into multiple skills, ordered by typical development or complexity. So, a skill of F1 (Requests by indicating) is a simpler skill than F12 (Requesting Help).  Usually, lower level skills are needed before proceeding to teach higher skills. The skills measured in the ABLLS-R range from essential abilities like orienting on people and objects to complex skills like talking about pleasant things that are not immediately present (i.e., "How was your day?").  The largest subcategory of skills examined are language with the categories defined by function of language and not by traditional abstract categorization.  

The ABLLS-R assessment is conducted via observation of the child's behavior in each skill area.  Some skills are difficult or time-consuming to test, so instructors frequently accept anecdotal evidence from parents and other caregivers as to a child's ability at a given skill-level.  The end result of the ABLLS-R assessment, which can take up to two weeks to complete, should be a set of recommendations for teaching objectives that are unique to that child.

When completing the assessment, you rate how well the student can accomplish the task with the rubric. If they can’t do it at all you leave it blank. The rubric will indicate how many boxes to fill in if they can somewhat do the task.  Once you go through all of the tasks your progress tracking sheet will look something like this:

The ABLLS-R is only as useful as the accuracy of the information that went into completing it and the skill of the administrator in both completing the ABLLS-R and sorting through the potential recommendations for future goals.  While it is commonly said that anyone can complete an ABLLS-R, it has been my experience that without an understanding of the behavioral principles underlying it, the resulting profile is less accurate and informative.  I recommend that the ABLLS-R be completed by someone who is likely to be objective about a child and their abilities who also has significant experience with children with language delays and other behavioral deficits commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders. 

How can you track progress with the ABLLS?

Now the cool part: the color you fill out the form with is associated with a date. Every few months or twice a year you can update this to show progress. I usually do this at every reporting period, unless a student is making progress at a faster rate.  The next time you fill it out – use a new color. This has a great visual cue of how much progress your student has made. 

To sum up, the ABLLS-R has many advantages and disadvantages to using it...


  • Addresses basic language, academic, self-help, classroom, and gross and fine motor skill sets.
  • Provides quick review for parents and educators to identify skill level of student
  • Easy for parents and teachers to communicate about the student’s educational programming
  • Relatively inexpensive.


  • Skill lists are not exhaustive (544 skills).
  • Although, it can be used for children with a variety of developmental disabilities, it is most appropriate for children with autism.
  • It does not provide an outline of teaching strategies or task analyses for skills.  It is simply a list of skills.
  • Skills are mostly in order of childhood development, but is not norm-referenced.
  • Can only be effectively used by someone with knowledge and training in Autism and Applied Behaviour Analysis.

In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages and I feel that there are better curricula on the market that meet the wide range of needs that our students present.  Chris and I will be discussing these in the coming weeks and hope that you will join us every Wednesday for these discussions.  Next week I will be discussing the VB-MAPP and Chris will be discussing Unique Learning Systems.  I hope that you will join us!

In the meantime, have you used or are you currently using the ABLLS-R in your classroom?  What are your thoughts on it?  I'd love to hear from you!  Leave me a comment below and I will respond!  Thanks for stopping by and don't forget to hop one to Chris' blog to see her thoughts on STAR.

Until then,


  1. I have a student in my room who we are using the ABLLS-R with. Our BCBA had implemented his program and I just follow her recommendations. It is wonderful in this case but when I have tried to use it with other students (on my own) I always get very confused and frustrated. I feel like you have to have more training and experience to use this tool. I definitely prefer the STAR program for implementing on my own.

    1. Yes, the ABLLS-R does require some training and background knowledge in ABA, and VBA, and if you have that it is a good tool. But, most teachers do not have this training or background so it really isn't a great choice for school settings. I know that some school boards in my province have started using it as it is used by the provincial IBI program, however the IBI program is a clinical treatment program with trained clinicians in ABA/VBA. To expect teachers to start using this with training from a one day workshop just isn't enough.

  2. I have a student in my room who we are using the ABLLS-R with. Our BCBA had implemented his program and I just follow her recommendations. It is wonderful in this case but when I have tried to use it with other students (on my own) I always get very confused and frustrated. I feel like you have to have more training and experience to use this tool. I definitely prefer the STAR program for implementing on my own.

  3. I find it disturbing that the Ontario Autism Intervention Program (IBI program) can use the ABLLS as an indicator for discharge from the program. There are many reasons to question how this is a clinically sound decision, and sad that they use the ABLLS to justify that a child os makoimng "slow progress". Talk about misuse of test. Also interesting to note that they are using the ABLLS to state that children are "not improving learning trajectory" to catch up to peers. Talk about junk science. It appears that the Ontario government uses the ABLLS as the sole assessment as a basis for discharge -shocking.

    1. Yes, the IBI program does use the ABLLS-R as their assessment and curriculum tool. I am not sure about whether it is used as basis for discharge however. I have seen the benchmarks that were developed by a panel a few years ago, but have heard mixed messages about whether they were ever implemented. The ABLLS-R does provide a good tool for tracking progress and the rate of skill acquisition, but I am not sure if their is a provincial criteria for determining discharge based on the child's progress. I think that it is still determined region by region and their clinical team.

  4. I use ABLLS-R in my classroom and have found the like you said above "it does not provide an outline of teaching strategies or task analyses for skills". I had to come up with a lot of my own strategy to teach the skills and do a lot of extra research. My students are non verbal the ABLLS only assesses verbal communication or ASL, I had to make extra notes to other teachers and parents on the data sheets if they used AAC. My students after mastery of a certain portion of the ABLLS exit the program into a self-contained classroom of students with mixed disabilities and larger ratios which is totally different from my 1:2 ratio environment when all of kiddos are student with Autism. I have to prepare them for the next level and state testing which is why I feel to me this an assessment to track skills the but not a curriculum. Using this as a curriculum this year was not effective because my students could not generalize the skills being taught in DTT using the ABLLS. In my state we also have to make sure that what we teach is vertically aligned with TEKS so it was a lot to translate the ABLLS This year I will continue to use the ABLLS because it is what my district uses but I will use it as an assessment to make sure they are getting the basic skills outlined in the ABLLS but I will change it up. We are supposed to getting VB-MAPP so I look forward to your post next week.

    1. Using the ABLLS-R in school settings is definitely tricky. I feel that it is best used in clinical treatment settings, where the clinicians have training and experience in ABA/VBA, and in writing treatment programs. Expecting teachers to use it as a curriculum and then write out lesson plans/teaching programs and making the materials to go with it is a lot. Plus, I find that it is really useful for only a subset of students. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the VB-MAPP when you get it.

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