Many educators and speech-language pathologists work with students who have complex communication needs and are learning to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to express themselves. This may come in the form of a low‑tech picture communication system or even a high-tech speech‑generating device.

When working with this diverse group of students, we often start by teaching them to request because they are already motivated to get the things they want. Sometimes we get stuck here since it’s important for them to get their basic wants and needs met. It’s great for students to learn that communication gives them that specific power, but how do we get past requesting?

As students grow and learn, our goal should be for them to share feelings and experiences, engage in social routines, ask and answer questions, gain attention, make comments, direct actions, and reject and refuse. A whole world of communication exists, and we can give them the key to unlock it!

Let’s explore six ways to get your AAC users communicating for a variety of purposes in the classroom.

1. Make a plan

Being able to communicate one’s thoughts and ideas is critical to fully participate in the world. When planning activities for your class, focus on expanding the students’ communication functions or reasons to communicate. You can encourage your student to:

  • Request
  • Comment
  • Ask questions
  • Joke
  • Give opinions
  • Share information
  • Protest

Going beyond requesting will not magically happen—you must set up your AAC users for success. For example, if you want to teach refusal, have items the student does not like available to offer. This option also allows you to model this type of response for them. Take time to think through what you will say and model before you start your instruction.

Designing activities that are exciting will allow those experiences to serve as motivators. In addition, pay special attention to science exploration, dramatic play, and snack-time activities, as these tend to offer more social interaction and opportunities for communicating.

2. Use repetition with routine language

Repetition helps to build language skills in young students. Saying the same words or phrases when you perform specific actions helps reinforce a student’s understanding of the words, which leads to them using the words.

The difference with students using an AAC device is that you need to model the routine words and language on it. Don’t feel pressure to model every word you say. Instead, pick a couple of important words to model during your routine language activity. For example, to teach farewells, set a phrase to a familiar tune and repeat daily while modeling key words on the student’s AAC device.

(To the tune of “Frère Jacques”)

It’s time to leave, it’s time to leave,
We say goodbye, we say goodbye,
Everybody line up, everybody line up,
Goodbye, goodbye.

Another approach is to call roll daily and have the students respond with “I’m here” or “hello.

Over time students will begin using the word to fill in the phrase or song that they repeatedly hear, all on their own.

3. Model on the student’s AAC device

Modeling is one of the most powerful tools to teach language and should be provided in all environments and natural contexts. AAC is the only form of communication we expect students to learn without immersion. It’s important for students to be exposed to language in order to learn to use it effectively. The same is true for our AAC users.

Modeling is simply using the student’s communication system yourself to show them how they can say different things on their AAC device. You don’t have to know where every single word is on the device to do this. Pick a few key words or phrases to model and do that throughout the day and in different situations. Some great ones to teach early commenting with are good, like, fun, and not like.

It will be helpful to talk about what you are doing and thinking while modeling on the student’s AAC device. During modeling, try to show the student how to use the device for a variety of communication purposes. For example, model feeling words on the device to express emotions or model question words on the device to show inquiry.

4. Provide communication temptations

Create an environment that entices students to communicate using their AAC devices. There are many ways to do this, including:

  • Setting up a painting activity with a paint brush, paper, etc., but withholding the paint so students can request “want” or “red”
  • When they ask for paint, handing them a cup so they can practice “not”
  • Putting their favorite toy in a tightly sealed container so they must request “help”
  • Showing them a picture of their favorite TV character so they can practice commenting “cool” or “like”
  • During quiet reading time, having someone loudly walk into the room so students can practice commands like “stop” and “quiet”

5. Insert expectant pauses

One of the most important and powerful tips to remember is to provide wait time! AAC users need time to process the language used around them, formulate their thoughts, and then turn those thoughts into a message on their device. This takes longer than verbal communication does, so make sure to give them enough time to do it all.

Also, a perfectly placed pause is powerful. You can use this to encourage commenting. For example, when looking at a book you can say “I see…” or “I like…” followed by an expectant pause. We teachers are often tempted to fill silence. Let your student fill it instead!

6. Provide prompting and cueing

You provided that extra wait time and nothing happened. Now it’s time to show students what they could say on their AAC device. You can do this by pointing to the words on their device to draw attention to them. Modeling the expectation on the device, asking directly for a response, or using physical touch like hand-over-hand assistance are examples of ways to prompt AAC device use.

It’s important to provide the least amount of prompting necessary so that the student is as independent as possible. If you need to use physical touch, try to fade that prompting as quickly as possible.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

These are just a few ways to motivate your students to communicate using their AAC devices. By incorporating these ideas into your day‑to‑day activities, you will help your AAC users to expand their communication skills. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and take risks. You may not know where all the words are on the device, and that’s ok. Pick a couple to start with and expand from there!

In “Magic and Cost of Communicative Competence” D.R. Beukelman wrote, “Having a communication device doesn’t make you an effective communicator any more than having a piano makes you a musician.” The best thing we can do as educators is to create an environment of inclusivity where all students are motivated to share their voices!

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About the Author
Kristle Soto, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a clinical assistant professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Baylor University. Her passion and interests lie in serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families and helping them to reach their greatest potential. She has developed and taught a graduate course on ASD and currently teaches Language Development. She supervises graduate students in the speech and language treatment of preschool and school-age children with communication disorders. Prior to joining Baylor University’s clinical faculty, Kristle acquired 15 years of experience in the public school and private pediatric settings.