Literacy Instruction for
Students with Significant Disabilities

“If all my possessions were taken from me with one exception,
I would choose to keep the power of communication,
for by it I would soon regain all the rest.”

Daniel Webster

Students with Complex Communication Needs (CCN)

Individuals who have complex communication needs are unable to communicate effectively using speech alone and may benefit from using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods, either temporarily or permanently. Students in our classrooms with complex communication needs may also have vision impairment, physical challenges, intellectual disabilities or some combination of any number of impairments that impact their lives and learning. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing they are typically not considered as having complex communication needs unless they experience other impairments related to communication.

While the number of children with complex communication needs is relatively small, there is a growing understanding that many of the students who we used to consider ‘non-verbal’ or ‘minimally verbal’ should be provided with AAC systems and supports in order to help them communicate, grow their language, and support their literacy development. (Binger & Light, 2006; Matas et al, 1985)

“For individuals to learn language, we need to provide more than a few picture symbols. We need to provide a wide range of symbols that represent a robust vocabulary that allows them to put words together, supports them to contribute in every situation, and supports their development into an autonomous communicator”. (Jane Farrell, 2016)

Symbol-based communication is the “alternative” in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Taking a closer look at the elements of ACC allows us to see where symbol-based communication fits within this context:

  • Augment means to add to or to enhance. Almost all speakers and non-speakers alike augment speech by using eye pointing, vocalizations, gestures and body language.
  • Alternative means replacement or substitute. An alternative to speech includes pointing or gazing to symbols, signing or spelling.
  • Communication means to send and receive messages with at least one other person.

Symbol-based communication is often used by individuals who are unable to communicate using speech alone and who have not yet developed, or have difficulty developing literacy skills. Symbols offer a visual representation of a word or idea. With few exceptions, nonverbal emergent readers and writers would use symbol-based communication.

Communication with symbols and spelling allows an individual to communicate anything they want to say using a combination of symbols, words and spelling. Students at an early conventional literacy level – who already have a means of communication and interaction, and understand that writing involves letters and words – would benefit from communication with both symbols and spelling. Most high-tech devices include a keyboard with word prediction and symbols, while low-tech systems include a letter board and symbols. The combination of symbols and spelling allows users to generate original messages more quickly.

Modelling communication, using the same system a student uses, increases the student’s receptive vocabulary. Instruction for communication partners is critical in supporting the success of individuals using AAC (Kent-Walsh, Murza, Malani & Binger, 2015) and should be viewed as an integral part of both AAC implementation and support.

We need to provide students with robust communication systems, model the use of AAC as much as we can, and attribute meaning to students’ communication attempts.

Communicative Competence

One of the most widely shared concepts in AAC is the notion of communicative competence. Janice Light (1989) defines communicative competence as “. . . the ability to communicate functionally in the natural environment and to adequately meet daily communication needs.” For students who use AAC and are in inclusive settings, this goal is very appropriate . . . and challenging!

Caroline Musselwhite utilizes Dr. Janice Light’s framework of communicative competence to categorize the following ideas and strategies in the following four domains:  linguistic competence, strategic competence, social competence, and operational competence.

Dr. Musselwhite suggests the following ideas and strategies to address the development of communication skills in each of these four domains:
(Definitions from

Linguistic Competence

talk of the town

Learning to monitor and exchange linguistic information for communication, participation and learning curricular content.

Systematic instruction is required to build the skills needed to understand and use language including the language “code” of various AAC systems. Students require instruction that supports them in learning how to use AAC to represent meaning, to combine words and phrases (often across modalities) and to express more complex ideas for both spoken and written communication.

wheels on the bus halloween
wheels on the bus valentines
AAC Mentors Tips
make a real choice
Strategies to Increase Success for AAC Users
Tic Tac Talk
Talk of the Town

Strategic Competence:


Learning to use AAC tools and devices strategically within the context of ongoing activities (e.g., at the correct time) to appropriately engage in curricular activities and conversations.

Students require instruction and practice in the use of additional strategies that allow them to use AAC tools flexibly in interactions. For example, learning to use different AAC tools for different purposes and with a range of communication partners.

Using the AlphaBoard to Support Emergent Writing
Eye Gaze Topic Setter

Social Competence:anatomy of a conversation

Interactional use of AAC tools and devices.

It is important that students learn how to use AAC effectively during social interactions with others. This includes using AAC for a range of communicative purposes in conversations, and developing knowledge, judgment, and skills in the interpersonal aspects of communication.

Active Listening
Anatomy of A Conversation: Social Scripts
Participation Scripts
Story Scripts
Active Listening Link to Literacy
Good News Bad News
Self-Constructed Scripts

Operational Competence:

Learning how to operate/use AAC tools and devices.stories on the ceiling

Students require direct instruction to learn how to operate a range of AAC technologies. Operation of AAC systems includes both the production of body-based communication behaviors (e.g., gestures, facial expressions) and device-based modes of communication (e.g., operation of low tech communication boards through complex voice output devices).

The Pointer Glove
Stories on the Ceiling
Battery Fan Spinner
Eye Pointing and Etran Frame
Glad Pad

Where can I learn more?

Project Core
The Project Core implementation model is aimed at helping teachers provide students with significant cognitive disabilities and complex communication needs with access to a flexible Universal Core vocabulary and evidence-based instruction to teach them to use core vocabulary via personal augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems.

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Beginning Communicators
This module describes symbolic and non-symbolic forms of communication, the distinction between pre-intentional and pre-symbolic communicators, and identifies additional sources of support for building communication skills.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

DLM™ Core Vocabulary and Communication
This module focuses on the use of core vocabulary as a support for communication for students who cannot use speech to meet their face-to-face communication needs and require augmentative and alternative communication.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Speaking and Listening
This module addresses speaking and listening in the broader context of expressive and receptive communication for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The content in this module is important to understand the DLM Essential Elements in Speaking and Listening and across all of the strands of Essential Elements in English language arts.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Supporting Participating in Discussion
Participants will review the goals of supporting participation in discussion and the need of an expressive means of communication for all students. Participants will also be given 5 strategies to use in supporting students during discussions with teachers and peers.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) – Symbols
This self-directed module provides an overview of symbols to support communication and interaction. It also describes the use of symbols and photographs in text.
Online Self-directed Module
Facilitated Module Materials for Groups

The Language Stealers (video 2:52 min)

Aided Language Videos

The Communication Training Project
This free webinar series from the Angelman Syndrome Foundation was created for families and educators working with individuals with complex communication needs. Leading the series is a team of communication experts, including Erin Sheldon, M. Ed.; Maureen Nevers, MS, CCC-SLP, Licensed Speech-Language Pathologist, Augmentative Communication Specialist; and Dr. Caroline Musselwhite, CCC-SLP. Accompanying each webinar are concise, one-page guides to help families and educators as they build on each lesson.

Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative competence for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: A new definition for a new era of communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30, 1-18. doi:10.3109/07434618.2014.885080