Aim for language development: Don't create custom pages for specific activities

My last blog post was about a Do's and Don'ts of AAC Poster that we made up for International AAC Awareness Month.  (The "we" in there is myself and David Niemeijer from AssistiveWare).

There's been a few comments and questions about one of the "Don't" statements. So I wanted to clarify what we meant when we said "Don't create custom pages for specific activities".  In our original presentation it actually said "don't focus on creating custom pages for specific activities" but we shortened it for the poster - which may have created some of the confusion!

We realise that many people start using Augmentative and Alternative Communication with scripted or topic pages.  We understand that this is a good starting point for some people - they can be highly motivating and using this approach we can experience a lot of success, which is great for all of us. Sequenced Social Scripts (Burkhart & Musselwhite, 2001) are one of my favourite starter activities to get people really motivated and excited about the power of communication.

But the problem with these activity or specific displays is that they don't develop overall language. So - we need to make sure that every AAC user is allowed to explore and access the whole vocabulary in a comprehensive communication system e.g. core vocabulary or PODD.

As an example, I've seen lots of students in classrooms who have a special page for their morning circle under a category called "school".  One day I'll write a blog post about morning circle - but in the meantime I'll use this as an example of where an activity display lets us down. Students in these classrooms go to class in the morning and their systems are often already on the morning circle page - or they are prompted by someone to navigate to the page.  On this page they can greet their classmates, talk about the weather and make comments about who is at school today. This highly scripted situation also usually contains a strong routine and lots of expectant pauses - which scaffold students to do well during that period.

However, these scaffolds don't exist in other situations - and the morning circle vocabulary doesn't get used in other situations. Additionally, because it is stored under the category called "school" it implies it is only used at school. This means that the students usually don't know how to use it outside the morning circle session and definitely not outside of school.  So, when they see a friend in the street they don't know how to say "hello" because they have never been shown how to navigate to it independently in their AAC system; or because they can only say hello after an expectant pause and a few hints; or they can only say hello in the heavily scripted routine of morning circle. They also don't know how to say the friend's name because they've never been taught how to navigate to the people section of their system.

When there is a storm at night, they don't know how to comment on it or to describe it because they have never been taught this. They might be able to easily tell us in morning circle what the weather looks like outside the window each morning - but conversations about the weather never consist simply of "sunny".  They contain phrases like "gorgeous day" or "raining cats and dogs" or "it's so loud". These students can't generate these comments because they don't know how to navigate to the weather page or the descriptions page.  They don't know how to string words together independently to produce a comment.  And they probably don't even think of using the morning circle page because it is only used in morning circle at school!

Instead of making a morning circle page, we should teach the students to go to chat or social vocabulary to say hello and then onto people to use someone's name.  We should teach them to go to the weather section of their system to tell us about the weather and then onto descriptions to make a comment about it.  And we should demonstrate using these skills whenever we greet people or comment about the weather throughout the day - and not just in morning circle and definitely not just at school.  This is how we get overall communication development, including language and vocabulary development.

Earlier this year, I published an article called "Implementation of iPads for AAC in a specialist school".  In this article I describe the changes when we moved on from an activity display approach and instead started using robust language. Using a comprehensive communication setup, the students began to develop as autonomous communicators.  They learned the power, not just of communication, but also of language.

Of course, there are other problems with an activity specific approach to AAC.  Balandin and Iacono (1998) found that it isn't easy to predict what is going to be said in many situations. During mealtimes we talk about many, many things - and yet "mealtime AAC displays" tend to focus on food and comments about the food. To truly participate in the conversation at mealtimes a person using AAC needs access to the robust vocabulary so that they can jump into the conversation about what happened on the weekend or the one about twerking!

Additionally, if we always make activity specific displays, we miss out on a fabulous opportunity to model and use strategic competence (Light & McNaughton, 2014).  Strategic competence is, among other things, the ability to make the best use of the vocabulary in the AAC system.  There will always be vocabulary limitations in any AAC system as we will never be able to include every single word - so it's good to learn and practice strategies to get around this limitation.  This is especially important for someone who is in the early stages of developing their literacy skills.

As an example, last year a teacher asked me to add an Australian Animals page into a student's AAC system.  We talked about the vocabulary that she wanted added.  The vocabulary included the names of Australian animals and some key terms she felt were important to the topic.  First of all, I pointed out that many of the Australian animals were already in the animals section - and that it would be more logical to add any extra ones into that section so that they could be accessed again and again.  Then we talked about the extra vocabulary she wanted added.  These were words like nocturnal and diurnal.  I suggested that this was a really good time to model strategic competence.  So, instead of adding these two very low frequency words, the teacher used this as an opportunity to model describing what the words mean.  So for nocturnal, she used the phrase "awake at night" and for diurnal she used the phrase "awake in the day". The result was that they completed this whole unit without adding an extra page - and just adding some animal names into the animals section and some habitat names into places.  And nocturnal and diurnal probably made a lot more sense to all of the students since they were constantly defined!

So having finished my blurb about why we shouldn't focus on activity specific displays, I'll tell you that I still use them occasionally.  But I only use them for occasions when the student needs to reduce their anxiety or when timing is really important.  So - I'll make a page for the school concert so that someone can say their lines with minimum stress.  I'll make a page for Christmas Day so that they can exchange greetings and information about presents quickly with their cousins that they only see once a year.  Or I'll make a page for McDonalds so that they can place their favourite order easily.  But most of the time I want them to use their robust vocabulary to communicate as autonomously as possible - so generally they use the vocabulary in their system to generate their own language throughout the day and situation specific displays are only made rarely and for really good reasons.

Balandin, S., & Iacono, T. (1998). Topic of meal-break conversations. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 14, 131-146.
Farrall, J. (2015). Implementation of iPads for AAC in a specialist school. Perspectives in Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 24(2), 51 – 59.
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.
Musselwhite, C. & Burkhart, L. (2001). Can We Chat? Co-Planned Sequenced Social Scripts (A Make It / Take It Book of Ideas and Adaptations). Litchfield Park, AZ : AAC Intevention.


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Comments (32)

  1. berkowitzssusanberkowitz


    This is often the hardest thing to convince teams of - they always want a separate page or board for each activity!

      • Genevieve Ricci


        Hello Jane,

        I'm new to AAC in terms of printed/electronic devices and I've been feeling something is slightly amiss while creating some 'aided language display' activity sheets for my son in the last few weeks.

        I have been trained recently in Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment and one of the cognitive functions outlined in this program has to do with being able to develop a meaningful grasp of reality (being able to see relationships between objects, activities, events, people, locations, categories, etc.).

        A person who is yet to develop this function will have a more episodic grasp of reality, much like you described in your article above with the morning circle activity.

        I was really pleased to read how your introduction of robust, core language to those students using the iPad AAC app has enhanced their freedom of expression, and simultaneously developed in at least one of the students, a need for greater accuracy in his language & communication.

        I'm no expert in FIE as yet, but it appears that you helped develop some important cognitive functions in these students simply by introducing this more flexible approach to using their devices. I suspect language acquisition/volume/mastery is a key player in developing some of our important cognitive functions and in refining our self expression.

        I am really grateful for this article and for your website - you have so much wisdom to share here!

  2. Cristi


    Hi Jane-I work with older students (16-25)
    with mod, severe, and PMLD. High number of students with ASD (mostly nonverbal). Most do not come
    With AAC systems. They are with us 1-3 years. What are your thoughts with starting point? Would you advise same as above in your article? Thank you!

    • jane


      HI Cristi - in a perfect world - yes. Everyone should have access to a robust vocabulary. The important part of that is that everyone models that vocabulary without expecting the student to use it. We need to put lots of language into the students before we expect them to use it - just as we do when kids are learning to talk. However, I'm aware that sometimes you need to build some capacity in the environment. In that case, I'd use aided language displays to start with because they are so much easier for people to model. I find these generally help people see how successful aided language input can be - and then I always have a definite plan to move onto a robust vocabulary before too long. I love the generic aided language display from Chat-Now. This is composed of core words that can be used through the whole day - more, finish, I, like, don't (like), stop, you, uh oh, time, wrong (something's wrong), different, etc. There's a 12 cell and a 20 cell version. What I like about the, as opposed to other aided language displays, is that they are used all day long. So they help build good habits, such as AAC is all day, every day; see child, see AAC; working out how to make AAC available in every situation. Those habits pay off well when you move to a more comprehensive system. Hope that helps.

  3. Reply

    This was a wonderful article! It is what we already do here with my daughter Lucy who is five and luckily I don't need to share it to convince anyone that this is how it should be (on Lucy's team anyway) because her speech therapist is already completely on board. But I think it really needs to be a concept that many, many more people need to understand and accept. Lucy uses a PODD book and PODD in grid2 on her Tobii. I make menus for her when we go out to eat from each restaurant so it's just like she is looking at the menu like we are and then we work in her ordering her own meal. And recently she became a Girl Scout and we worked together to create a message of how she wanted to sell candy and magazines for a fundraiser and I did make a page for that with buttons for her messages, but she accesses it through the quick words in her PODD. Thanks again for sharing!

    • jane


      Thanks Julie! Lovely to hear that this is working really well for you. PODD is such a clever language organisation - core vocabulary with all those pragmatic branches to structure it and predictable associated vocabulary to back it up. Love it 🙂

  4. Reply

    Hi there - I think the article is interesting, but I'm not sure how it would apply to students with decreased capacity to recall navigation pathways and decreased interest in communication with others. I use a mix of all-day, all-places pages that focus on language development but include a range of activity-specific pages that are designed to allow support staff to facilitate participation in the activity that is meaningful and linguistically appropriate.

    • jane


      HI Sean - I used to think as you did. I used to do a lot more scripted single page displays with those older students. However, I found that that approach on its own often led to output without outcomes. Students were able to output in the scripted situations without developing language. We need language development as an outcome - and that involves having a comprehensive system with robust language. We can have activity specific aided language displays working in tandem with this - but the comprehensive system needs to be at the core. And to get that comprehensive system working, aided language stimulation is key. The more we model, the more we build receptive language. The more we model, the more we build navigation pathways in their memory. The more we model, the more we show them the power of communication and that gives them increased interest in communication.

      I also understand that sometimes we have to implement aided language displays first to get the staff comfortable with aided language before we move onto a comprehensive system. I do this all the time - but I always have the Beukelman and Mirenda's participation model in my head - and therefore I'm always planning for "tomorrow". Tomorrow should always involve a comprehensive language system that goes every where with the student and lets them say whatever they want to say, to whoever they want to say it. So I might start with situation specific displays but I have an agenda to move onto a comprehensive system.

  5. Dana


    I agree with a lot of what you said but I had some questions related to the software in the tobiidynavox devices now - the compass. They have a lot of topic specific pages in addition to core and quick phrases/fires. I was originally not sure how I felt (thinking it was too much), then attended a conference and felt I understood more of where they were coming from (they reviewed the research for needing all that available for fastest most efficient communication), but after reading your post I find myself questioning it again. Have you seen their layouts and what is your opinion on that type of setup?

    • jane


      HI Dana,

      I have seen their page sets and I find they give individuals a lot of structure in the beginning, which gives them success. If assume you are talking about InterAACt - and it is based on great vocabulary samples of what we say in different situations. But there are always times when phrases aren't appropriate - or when the conversation in a situation isn't what we would predict. So then we need to move to a more robust vocabulary to help individuals develop the language to communicate no matter what the topic is.

      For me, the biggest guideline these days is how much I can use the vocabulary to talk with myself. If I, as a competent communicator, find it hard to communicate with it, how do I expect a developing communicator to use it? If I find I can communicate well with it in certain situations but not in others, then how do I expect someone to see themselves as an autonomous communicator in every situation if they are limited to communicating in some? If I can join in chatting at the dinner table as long as it is on a set topic - but I can't join in if the topic changes (which it inevitably does in my experience) then what does that say to the developing communicator when they can no longer join in?

      The only system I know of that allows a user to be truly autonomous is every situation is text. Being able to spell means you can say anything you want to say. The next best option is access to a robust, comprehensive vocabulary such as core vocabulary or PODD.

      • Dana


        I think the Compass software/app is a little bit different than interAACT, but like you said, they do provide core, a keyboard, and then topic pages. I am not as familiar with PODD but feel like I am seeing more and more of it out there. I will look into more training on that system as well. Thank you for the support and response. I have been following and reading more and more of your material and have been trying to make some changes in my school (private school for children with multiple disabilities). We are working on getting large core boards in our classrooms, increasing our Aided Language Stim, and training our staff on language development. I would love to pick your brain more. Any chance you are coming to the states to do trainings or conferences?

        • jane


          Hi Dana - I'm so pleased to hear my blog is useful. I'm heading to the ISAAC conference in Toronto next year. I always go to ISAAC 🙂 I don't know if you can make it there but hopefully I'll see you! Jane

  6. Reply

    I am a little late in the discussion but want to comment about the aim for language development.

    First, Jane I want to say how wonderful this has been as a resource for people. I know you spend so much time on this so thank you. I also want to say knowing you and having had many discussions I think we are on the same page. Since my primary caseload is children with severe and multiple disabilities, there are exceptions a to every rule.

    1) Communication using a broad definition involves; conversation ( whole phrases), language ( words and putting them together) and literacy skills ( spelling and word prediction) or what is appropriate for spelling. I would call the Integrated Model of Communication.

    2) The methods you use to teach for any of those skills are important.

    There is a direct balance between motor/sensory skills and the context of where communication will be used. Most children have a lot more to say than what they are physically capable of saying. Students who have severe and multiple disabilities often cannot do "two hards" at once, thinking of what they want to say and physically doing it can be a challenge! Therefore, conversations need to be quick and fast and used in meaningful situations but at the same time they need to be robust enough to establish friendships, express opinions, feelings, protest, comment, express when something is wrong, repair breakdowns, and participate in routine or favorite activities.

    The ultimate goal is for students is to have generative dialogues with others. A dialogue is different from a conversation, in that it is"...a shared exploration towards greater understanding, "connection, or possibility between individuals". (David Bohm, 2014) In inclusion situations, teachers strive to have "dialogues" with students as it is telling of what students are thinking and learning. In my experience, there is a direct relationship between what the student says with their communication system and how others (including; peers, family members, assistants) perceives the nonspeaking student, including their intelligence and their willingness to communicate more with the nonspeaking student. For the many students and teams where students have the most significant disabilities that I have worked with, students who experience success with conversations and dialogues are often more willing to tackle the task of putting words together and working on skills towards that as well as using the alphabet with word prediction, etc. , because they have learned the value of conversation or communication. As a facilitator, a I encourage a robust literacy and instructional program for all student’s regardless of perceived abilities, right from the start of intervention so never would a student only have conversational language.

    To address point two, "the method that you teach communication skills within the Integrated Model of Communication ( conversation, literacy and language) or any model is extremely important" and supports your comment, Jane in terms of communication boards magically appearing in front of the child. Use the students system to model everything! Always, model how to get from "point a to point b" with think aloud strategies. Always model what want or expect students to do. This is as equally important for conversational language as it is for using language and literacy skills to communicate. All communication (conversation, language and literacy) is and can be generative if it is the student’s choice of how, when, what and where they want to say it , then they own it. This includes navigating to specific pages, making a statement, commenting or going to core words and creating sentences or spelling with word prediction.

    Thanks again Jane for your hard work!

    • jane


      Hi Pati, glad you enjoyed the post!

      I agree that we need to make adjustments for students based on their sensory requirements and other factors. However, I'd still aim for a robust communication system at the end - it's always the "tomorrow" I aim for - which is also what you're saying I believe.

      I really wrote the post because it worries me when I see lots and lots of programming of fringe vocabulary happening without core vocabulary ever being modelled or implemented. Or I see lots of aided language displays without a long term plan to put it all together into a comprehensive communication system. Language can only be truly generative if the student has choices - and understands how to put words together to express themselves. To learn that, they need lots of aided language input and a good robust vocabulary.


    • jane


      HI Lu, I'm not sure. It might be good to join some of the AAC parent forums on Facebook and talk to other parents about this. Jane

    • Reply

      What I have found as a parent, Lu, is that you may not "find" them, and it is our job to teach others to think this way. When my daughter (who has Rett Syndrome) was three and we met her current team of therapists, her new slp had never heard of PODD, or a Tobii eyegaze device. I had already attended a three day PODD training with Linda Burkhart and learned the importance of a robust communication system, why my daughter needed it, and how to teach it to her. So whether her new slp "worked this way" or not was not important to me, what was important was to teach her how my daughter was going to learn to communicate and to make sure she understood right away that we were already dedicated to this system and this was what we were going to be using. Fortunately our slp is a fabulous woman without a giant ego and she accepted that a parent was telling her how things were going to go. But even if she wasn't, I wouldn't have relented. We just have to be advocates and make people do what we need them to do for our idlers, and if they positively refuse, find someone else.

  7. Cristi


    Great thread thank you for the replies
    🙂 Great to hear everyones thoughts and experiences.

  8. Rachel


    Hi Jane,
    This is such a great post as its something we are constantly battling with most of our teachers who want a page for everything!
    I do have one question around implementing this with one of my AAC users and that is what would you do if the child is Deaf?
    We have one student who is just starting out who can read and learn by rote but has difficulty spelling (due to decreased phonological awareness) so is using a symbol based system on touch chat. Ending up with alot of categories and i'm not sure if this is a good thing or not.
    They need to be able to anticipate what someone such as a shopkeeper or cafe worker might ask because they can't hear the questions, so in order to interact with hearing people who dont sign its been set up to be very scripted and situation based. However, with hearing people who can sign (such as carers, teacher aids etc) there should be the ability to carry on a conversation, but the student now has a category based system that is difficult to navigate through. Any advice on iPad apps that might accommodate both or ways to setup categories to work for conversation?

    • jane


      HI Rachel, I would look for one that has a core vocabulary or pragmatically organised setup - but which also has the option for activity specific pages. For example, Proloquo2Go has a great core vocabulary arrangement and also has a section for activity specific vocabulary - this was added in in version 4.0 of Proloquo2Go. Then you can use the core vocabulary to be generative every day and use the activity specific when needed. The other option, too, is to use two different apps. One that has a good robust vocabulary and one that lets you create situation specific. For example, you might use WordPower in TouchChat for your robust vocabulary along with GoTalk Now for activity specific. Hope that helps. Jane

  9. Maureen MacGowan


    I was wondering what you think about making specific pages for books. I have been making pages for the books I read to him so he can answer questions about the characters etc.

    • jane


      HI Maureen, I wouldn't generally make specific pages for books. Is your literacy learner emergent or conventional? If you're not sure there are some questions to answer at If he is emergent then we do shared reading - which is more of an interactive book reading rather than specific questions and answers - If he is conventional then the comprehension questions are often initially more about overall book comprehension, such as character's feelings, description of the setting, etc. By this stage a literacy learner should be more competent with their AAC system and able to answer these questions using their system so I don't usually find I need to make specific pages. Hope that helps.

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