Being a Good Communication Partner to a Child Who Uses AAC

Being a good communication partner is important when implementing AAC with students.

Good Communication Partners:

     1. create a positive communication environment

     2. respond to all communication attempts

     3. use the child’s AAC system to communicate to them

Creating a Positive Communication Environment:

          There is a positive communication environment when we respond to all of a child’s communication attempts, provide support as needed, focus on positive results, and find solutions to challenges. Even when you respond to an undesirable behavior, if you do so while also modeling how to use the correct message in the AAC system you take advantage of a communication opportunity.

As much as possible, do NOT ask yes/no questions, do NOT ask closed-ended questions

DO ask Wh-questions or other open-ended questions. If necessary, ask multiple choice questions.

being a good communication partner

Strategies to create opportunities to communicate include:

     1. providing choices, 

     2. sabotaging the environment, 

     3. giving small amounts of desired item/activity, 

     4. briefly delaying access, 

     5. using pause time, 

     6. using fill-in-the- blank activities.


Respond to all Communication Partner’s Attempts:


All children communicate. They don’t all communicate symbolically - that is, with pictures, words, text. And some of their nonsymbolic communication is undesirable.

Think about how this child responds to his/her own name; what (s)he does when a routine is interrupted; what (s)he does when wanting an item, action, attention, or help; or tells you when something is wrong. What we’re talking about is how this child communicates to reject/protest, request, comment. Those are some of the main, early functions of communication. The earliest communication behaviors are social regulatory - regulating another’s actions.  What we need to do is to respond to those other communication behaviors, while shaping them into more acceptable or understandable forms.


The more you practice using the aac system during real contexts, and increase the number of those contexts in which you use the aac system, the more automatically the child will learn to use the system.  Use the AAC System to Communicate TO the Child:


Aided Language Stimulation - also called Partner Aided Input - is crucial to the child learning to use their aac system.

Language is learned through models. Children learn spoken language by listening to others using it. A child using picture-based communication is learning an entirely different language. They need to see models of people using it effectively. And models provided in response to their communication are most powerful.

girls reading book.jpg

Facilitating Communication:

  1.    provide access to the aac system - it needs to be available all of the time. This is how this child “talks” and (s)he needs to know that communication is valued enough to be there whenever it is needed 
  2.    provide AAC models - use aided language stimulation as much as possible. When asking questions during an activity, highlight key words by using the aac system
  3.    provide opportunities for the child to take a turn - i.e. by pausing after each turn you take. Don’t be the only one “talking”
  4.    pause/expectant delay - give the child time to process, time to formulate a response. Looking expectant while pausing lets the child know you expect a response
  5.    ask open-ended questions - and wait for the answer before you provide it; if necessary, you can answer the question then provide a prompt for the child to imitate the answer. Asking Wh-questions instead of yes/no questions allows the child to learn higher-level responses.
  6.    prompting those responses - providing verbal prompts lets the child know what they are supposed to do.

When do I do Each of Those Things?

     Begin with routine activities. Many routine activities have a set beginning - middle - end that are predictable , use words that are predictable. This makes it easier for the child.

Other activities are a little less predictable but can easily provide communication opportunities.

Sample activity (based on Kent-Walsh and Binger):

1. Read from a book (a 2-pg. spread) + Model using the AAC system.


2. Ask a question + Model using the AAC system. Then PAUSE

3. Answer the question + Model using the AAC system. Then PAUSE

4. If necessary and appropriate to the target goal: Prompt a response.

Take turns with other adults role playing how to do this so it becomes automatic.  Start using ALgS (Aided Language Stimulation) with one activity. When you’re comfortable, add another activity/time.  Keep adding activities throughout the day until the strategies are used all of the time.

Keep track of the need for new vocabulary. By the time you have increased the number of contexts, you may find that there is more vocabulary that you need. Have a plan for how to keep track of this. For example, some classrooms keep a list on a clip board for each applicable student, staff write down words as they come up. The list is given to the person who updates the system every day/week/2 weeks - as appropriate.


Ready for Some Myth Busting? A Word on Cognitive Referencing

               By Susan Berkowitz, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP

    I periodically write about the Myths of Augmentative-Alternative Communication, many of which still persist, despite evidence to the contrary.  One that particularly stands out is the mantra that, “His cognitive skills aren’t good/high enough to use AAC.”

I had hoped to stop hearing this one, as ASHA’s policy on cognitive referencing - otherwise known as the discrepancy model - is strong.  

    “Cognitive Referencing is the practice of comparing IQ scores and language scores as
a factor for determining eligibility for speech-language intervention. It is based on
the assumption that language functioning cannot surpass cognitive levels. However,
according to research, some language abilities may in fact surpass cognitive levels.
Therefore, ASHA does not support the use of cognitive referencing.” (ASHA, 2016)


    Unfortunately, the discrepancy  model does not take into account the fact that cognitive and language skills are intertwined and interdependent; not linear.  Language is as likely to improve cognitive function as increased cognitive skills are to improve language. (Nelson, N. 1995)


cognitive referencing

    This becomes a bigger issue for nonspeaking students than for those with speech; as we are unlikely to know exactly what a child can do given correct instruction if we ban them from the “game” before they even start.

Students with significant disabilities are often denied access to services and supports because their language and cognitive skills are believed to be commensurate.  But this gives the impression  that communication skills only warrant intervention when language skills are “below” a student’s cognitive skills. (Miller & Chapman, 1980; Shane & Bashir, 1980).

Newborns communicate.  Communication, in and of itself, does not require linguistic skills.  And what children can do with structured intervention often far exceeds our expectations; telling us loudly and clearly that we are not expecting enough. That we need to presume competence.

ASHA’s position statement concludes:

    “Evidence from research has shown that all individuals can benefit from appropriate communication services to improve the effectiveness of their communication. A child's cognitive age relates to where along the continuum of communication he or she will begin the communication and language process. A child's cognitive age should not be used to deny communication services and supports."

    People used to believe that individuals had to demonstrate certain cognitive skills before they would be able to benefit from communication services. Recent research has shown that communication and language develop from early infancy along with cognitive and thinking skills. In fact, sometimes teaching new communication skills can help a child develop other thinking skills.

    The use of "discrepancy" between measured cognitive and measured language levels is not an acceptable approach to eligibility decisions. It is appropriate to provide communication services to an individual whose language age is commensurate with his or her mental age.

The relationship between language and cognition is neither simple nor static. Tests that purport to assess either cognitive or language skills often measure the same fundamental skills. Research has shown that individuals with disabilities whose cognitive and language skills were measured as equal nonetheless benefit from language intervention.”


    The position of the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities is an official policy of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. It states that determining eligibility on pre-formulated criteria, rather than the specific individual’s needs, environment, response to intervention, and supports may violate federal statute and state laws.



    There is a reason why this is often referred to as the “wait to fail” model of intervention.  But just why do we need to wait for the student to fail before providing intervention that could have prevented such failure?

    Nickola Wolf Nelson suggests we ask, not who can benefit from intervention based on their IQ, but, “Who has language and communication skills that are insufficient to support them in the important contexts of their lives?”  She sites the evidence from Lahey (1992), Cole (1990, 1992) , & Terrell (1978) that:  

1. Cognitive and language tests may reflect the same things;

2. Some combinations of language tests and cognitive tests show a discrepancy when others may not—and at

some times, but not others;

3. Formal testing often yields biased results for children from diverse cultural and linguistic communities;

4. Formal tests fail to assess contextually-based needs for language intervention;

5. Validity for determining the need for language intervention services is questionable; and,

6. Children can benefit from language intervention services whether or not they show discrepancies


    Students should be served based on their unmet communication needs.  Communication is a basic need and a basic right, says the National Joint Committee for Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities (1992).

Susan  Berkowitz, MS, CCC-SLP, MEd.,  has been a speech-language pathologist for 40 years. She has worked mostly with children and adults with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and other developmental disabilities, as well as 8 years in the language-based classrooms in a school district. Susan has worked in public and non-public schools, residential settings, and nonprofit community agencies. She has written for peer-reviewed professional journals and presented at international conferences. Visit her website   and blog for additional resources. For her complete resume, click here.

Cole, K. N., Dale, P. S., & Mills, D. E. (1990). Defining language delay in young children by cognitive referencing: Are we saying more than we know? Applied Psycholinguistics, 11, 291-302.

Cole, K. N., Dale, P. S., & Mills, P. E. (1992). Stability of the intelligence quotient—language quotient relation: Is discrepancy modeling based on a myth? American Journal on Mental Retardation, 97(2) 131-143.

Discrepancy Models and the Discrepancy Between Policy and  Evidence (April 1996; 3:1). The Newsletter of Special Interest Division 1, Language Learning and Education. ASHA

Eligibility and Dismissal in Schools.

Lahey, M. (1990). Who shall be called language disordered? Some reflections and one perspective. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 55, 612-620.

Lahey, M. (1992). Linguistic and cultural diversity: Further problems for determining who shall be called language disordered. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 56, 638-639.

National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities. (2003). Position statement on access to communication services and supports:

Concerns regarding the application of restrictive “eligibility” policies [Position Statement]. Available from or

Ourand, P. (2010). Cognitive Prerequisites Not Required for AAC Use.; from  AAC: Demystifying the "Assessment Process"  

Special Education Eligibility: When Is a Speech-Language Impairment Also a Disability? Retrieved from (2011).

Terrell, F., Taylor, J., & Terrell, S. L. (1978). Effects of type of social reinforcement on the intelligence test performance of lower-class Black children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 46, 1538-1539.







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