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Communicative Competence Using AAC Systems

Communicative competence with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is considered an urgent, priority curricular area for each Bridge School student. Communicative competence is “the ability to communicate functionally in the natural environment and to adequately meet daily communication needs.” (Light, 1989). At The Bridge School, instruction with AAC is designed to systematically address areas of communicative competence within ongoing academic/social activities across various subject areas.

AAC is not synonymous with assistive technology. AAC incorporates each student’s full communication abilities and may include any existing speech, vocalizations, or gestures, as well as the use of communication boards and voice output communication aids (VOCA).  Educational teams specify appropriate communication modes, tools and strategies to be learned and utilized by each student across communication partners, situations, and curricular areas.  

The broad goal of learning AAC is to foster and support the development of communicative competence so that our students can participate as fully as possible in home, school, and community environments. As they become increasingly proficient in the use of AAC tools and strategies, our students gain essential skills that, in turn, create access, participation, motivation, and achievement in all curricular areas and in their everyday life experiences.

To ensure that instruction in AAC results in these desired educational outcomes, our educational teams systematically.

  • Target various aspects of communicative competence (as defined by Light, 1998) for each student.
  • Incorporate AAC tools and strategies within instructional experiences for these broad purposes:
Addressing a Continuum of Communicative Competence with AAC
Operational Competence ==> Strategic Competence ==> Social Competence ==> Linguistic Competence


Alex is learning to operate his complex voice output device.

1. Operational Competence - Learning how to operate/use AAC tools and devices.  Our students receive 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).





Trevor and Ms. Sasha agree on the "meaning" of a gesture to say "Wii."

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

    Our students receive instruction and practice in the use of additional strategies that allow them to use AAC tools flexibly in interactions. For example, they learn to use different AAC tools for different purposes and with a range of communication partners.




Elisabeth learns to operate her Kindle to read a book.

3. Social Competence - Interactional use of AAC tools and devices.

It is important that our 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.






Nicole and Collin P. share information and stories with each other.

4. Linguistic Competence - 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. We provide instruction that supports students in learning how to use AAC to represent meaning and to combine words & phrases, often across modalities, to express more complex ideas for both spoken and written communication.





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