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Stages of Communication Development in AAC

Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP

November 18, 2019



What are the stages of communication development in AAC? 


The stages of communication development in AAC move from an emerging communicator to an independent communicator. When considering these stages, we want to figure out where the person is starting.  An emerging communicator is really not using symbolic communication to communicate, or they are just beginning to. Basically, they are not using symbolic communication to communicate things that they want or things that they need to interact socially. They don't have a large vocabulary of symbols yet because they're just learning them. Emerging communicators may not understand cause and effect, meaning when they touch a picture symbol or the touchscreen of a symbol they don’t realize they are communicating (i.e., “When I touch this button something happens.” “When I touch this button I get something.”).

Next, is the wants and needs communicator. This individual is using symbolic language to communicate wants and needs or to make requests.  The vocabulary on their AAC system is primarily to make requests for things that they want and the things that they need. A wants and needs communicator might have quite a few nouns on their board to communicate some basic wants and needs: I want a cookie. I want a cracker. I want to swing.

The next level is context-cue. When an individual is at the context-cue level, they're ready to learn language. You've established requesting behavior so they know how to do that and now it's time to move them forward.  Context-cue communicators are beginning to combine symbols to create sentences, answer questions, and ask questions. They're starting to use language for social purposes. But they are also still relying heavily on context and cues to communicate. They do okay in environments where they're really familiar or when they have a communication partner to provide them with support but struggle a bit more when they're on their own.

The next level of communication independence is transitional. At this stage, individuals are becoming more independent and are gaining more complex language skills that they're using for many different tasks. Their social skills are really expanding and they have a variety of conversational skills. We all know that a lot of language skills are needed to participate in a conversation. Transitional communicators are becoming more independent so that they can reach that final stage of an independent communicator.

It is important to understand this continuum. It helps us know where an individual is and where we're going with them in intervention.  It also helps provide some direction of the skills that need to be built to get the individual to the next level of communication.

Please refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Strengthening Students' Core Vocabulary for Powerful Communication​, for more information on choosing vocabulary for students' augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) systems that will promote communication success across environments and communication partners.

trina becker

Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP

Trina Becker, MS, CCC/SLP is an associate professor in Communication Disorders and Sciences Department at Eastern Illinois University and is the Director of the Speech-Hearing-Language Clinic. Her specialty areas include alternative and augmentative communication and speech-sound disorders. Ms. Becker teaches multiple undergraduate and graduate level courses and serves as a clinical supervisor for diagnostics and therapy sessions with the AAC population. Ms. Becker has consulted with families and schools on AAC and has presented to parent and professional groups at the local, state, and national level.

Related Courses

Home Sweet Home: Transitioning AAC to the Home Environment
Presented by Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP


Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #9760Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'This course provided some good strategies to increase use of AAC in the home'   Read Reviews
This course discusses ways to transition augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) from the speech therapy room to the home environment, for children who use AAC. Strategies for planning and implementing carryover of skills from the educational setting are shared.

Strengthening Students' Core Vocabulary for Powerful Communication
Presented by Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP


Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #8809Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'Speaker was an effective communicator and gave helpful examples as she elaborated on the subject material on the slides'   Read Reviews
Do you struggle with choosing vocabulary for your students' augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) systems that will promote communication success across environments and communication partners? Core vocabulary should be considered when choosing an appropriate AAC system, writing goals, and developing powerful communication for individuals who use AAC.

AAC Communicator Profile
Presented by Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP, Beth Bergstrom, MS, CCC-SLP


Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLPBeth Bergstrom, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #10553Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'Great presenter's style of communication and visuals very conducive to learning'   Read Reviews
Categorization of users of augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) to determine an appropriate path for intervention is discussed in this course. Three communicator categories and a tool to assist in determining an AAC communicator's profile based on prognostic indicators and linguistic skills are described.

Case Studies in AAC
Presented by Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP


Trina Becker, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #8872Level: Intermediate1.5 Hours
  'I have attended another session with the speaker and liked her style'   Read Reviews
This course will review case studies of individuals who use augmentative/alternative communication (AAC). Participants will learn how to apply knowledge of communication independence levels, a continuum of goals, and evidence-based intervention strategies in order to determine appropriate plans for treatment.

Textbook: AAC in the Schools - Best Practices for Intervention
Presented by Gloria Soto, PhD, Nancy B. Robinson, PhD, CCC-SLP, Professor Emerita


Gloria Soto, PhDNancy B. Robinson, PhD, CCC-SLP, Professor Emerita
Course: #10519Level: Intermediate8 Hours
  'Great information, very relevant'   Read Reviews
Based on the textbook AAC in the Schools: Best Practices for Intervention, this course is a comprehensive guide for systematically overcoming barriers in the school for students who use AAC. Curriculum-based assessment tools are discussed, along with methods for aligning intervention goals with general education standards, developing lesson plans, and adapting curricula for students with AAC needs.

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