You Call That Reading Instruction? Not for AAC Users!

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Josh is a nonverbal boy in a special day class for students with autism. He is 6. Reading time in his classroom consists of students listening to an audio book, while the teacher sits at the front of the room, holding up the book and turning the pages. Students sit at their desks; too far from the book to see much. When the audio book is finished, so is “Reading” time. Students move on to other work. 

How does this count as reading instruction? Why does Josh’s teacher think that this is sufficient; that just “exposing” them to books is all that her students need? And why is she, sadly, not alone in this belief?

David Yoder (2000) said it all when he said, “No student is too anything to be able to read and write.” And yet, walk into almost any classroom for students who are nonverbal, read almost any individualized education plan (IEP) for a student who can’t talk, and look for the literacy instruction. Chances are, it isn’t there. Or it is limited to learning the letters of the alphabet - usually during a 15 minute literacy center rotation.

Diane Browder (2003, March 3) said, “The assumption was that the students might learn a few sight words for functional living but probably would not become readers. We know from the National Reading Panel research that some development of sight vocabulary is certainly important but to only provide sight word instruction is to place a ceiling on students' literacy skills."

Evidence based practice calls for reading instruction 90 minutes per day for general education students. Struggling readers often get an additional 30-60 minutes per day of intensive instruction. But students who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and have complex communication needs often receive no literacy instruction. How many of your students who are nonverbal receive 2-3 hours per day of reading instruction? I, personally, don’t work with or know of any.

Not only is literacy development crucial for academic, social, and occupational success, but literacy and language skills are so intertwined that developing skills in one enhances the other. Yet I have been in countless classrooms where the interaction with books is restricted to passively listening to them being read - either “live” or from an audio book.

Yes, reading to students is crucial. Books are a singularly encompassing way to introduce students to vocabulary and ideas they would not normally encounter. Reading to students provides motivation for them to want to learn to read, it teaches them about processes for reading, provides experiences with books they cannot read independently, and gives a sense of meaningfulness of written language. But those readings need to be interactive; not passive. Talking about stories encourages thinking and language skills, and facilitates further reading comprehension. 

Shared reading has been shown to be one of the best influences on later vocabulary development and reading skills. Having conversations around the story generates vocabulary knowledge and develops higher order thinking skills - when the right types of questions are asked. Too often teachers who want to do more than just turn on the audio book tell me their students can’t “talk about” the stories they hear.

Interacting with stories - with all of the curriculum - is dependent upon students having a robust, comprehensive AAC system that provides them with the vocabulary they need to discuss…..well, whatever they want to. Whether you are a proponent of core word systems, PODD books, or any other style of AAC book or device, your students need to have sufficient vocabulary to talk about whatever they need to in the classroom, as well as whatever they want to anywhere, and they need to know how to find it.

And, too often, even given an AAC system, students are only asked, “What” questions that require little or no thinking and limit language production to identifying nouns and verbs. Teachers are looking harder than ever at Bloom’s Taxonomy with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but why are they not always looking beyond that first, bottom, rung for these kids?  

Students need interactions around stories that focus on answering a variety of Wh-questions; sequencing events; using more complex phrases and sentences to make responses; describing, comparing and contrasting characters or settings, and more. And they need experience with re-telling stories.

In short, AAC users need the same types of interactions around books as their verbal peers. What we do in intervention with these students isn’t really any different from what we do with other students. Only the mode of expression is changed, and the addition of one step - that of identifying where the vocabulary needed is located in the AAC system.  

AAC users often get short-changed in the experiences department. They don’t always get to go to the same places as their peers, interact with the variety of people and environments. Those students who have motor or sensory impairments aren’t able to interact with or experience the same things. So, we need to build their background knowledge a little differently. And we need to recognize that interacting with stories is as close as they may get to some experiences.

AAC users also don’t get the same kind of experiences with story telling and re-telling as their peers. Yet these experiences are very important for later literacy success. Typically developing children sit and listen to the same stories over and over. Then they practice re-telling these stories to their stuffed animals and dolls and younger siblings. AAC users rarely get these experiences.

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) may still debate about their place in literacy instruction, but we are uniquely positioned to build those language skills that these students miss. We just need to recognize that teaching AAC users is not often all that different from teaching the same skills to other students. We teach students all the time about semantic relationships. That is one of the biggest tasks of the SLP. Teaching nonverbal students how to find the words they want to use based on whatever the semantic organization of their AAC system is should be a piece of cake for us all.  

What else do AAC users need to be able to read? Janice Light and David McNaughton have provided us with excellent information and systems for teaching phonological awareness skills to nonverbal students. You can access their website at this link:

In closing, “...good instruction is good instruction. We do not believe that a different curriculum is required in order for children with disabilities to succeed in learning to read and write.” (Erickson and Kopenhaver, 2007). The teaching strategies are there. Let’s teach teachers how to use them. And let’s teach students how to access them. Everyone deserves to learn to read.

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.

Browder, D. (2003, March 3). Interview with Diane Browder, Ph.D., distinguished professor, and principal investigator of Project RAISE, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (L. Schreiber, Interviewer). Retrieved from

Erickson, K. & Koppenhaver, D. (2007). Children with disabilities: Reading and writing the four-blocks way. Carson-Dellosa Publishing.

Light, J. & McNaughton, D. (2012). Literacy instruction: For individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities. Retrieved from 

Yoder, D. (2000). DJI-AbleNet Literacy Lecture. ISAAC. (found in Farrall,J. Literacy for ALL Students). Retrieved from