How to model AAC with our minimally speaking students?
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How to model AAC with our minimally speaking students?

modelling AAC

How should we start? Should we use prompts? What kind of prompts? hand-over-hand or just pointing? Should we wait, and, if so, how long? Introducing an alternative communication system (AAC) to our child is for many of us a confusing and sometimes scary prospect, but it needn’t be! Let me reassure you and share some tricks of my practice in this area.

Once we have decided to try for a picture based communication system, I usually start with a paper-based single page with between 48–88 core-words. I choose the number of words depending on where the child is developmentally and also verbally.

If a child does have a small handful of words already, I might start with the 88-cell board below. If, on the other hand, my student is completely non-speaking and still quite little then I might go for the 48-cell below here or I might have even less cells to start with. Again, sometimes I start with an electronic device in my clinic just to trial and introduce the idea and to see if, or how, a student responds. 

Below are some samples: a 49-cell board which I made for a child in a nursery setting

Below a Saltillo WordPower board that can be downloaded from the Saltillo website:

Example of a slightly more advanced board, again from the Saltillo Website

And here below one example of a board I made for a specific activity for a child who loves water and sand play:

It is perfectly possible to be very flexible and create a suitable board for any student, starting with as few as 2–5 cells and working up to over a 100 (very small ones) on a sheet of A4 or A3 paper.

So once we have a good board for our child, what now? How do we start introducing this into our daily life?

We can start by showing/pointing to the word GO within a play activity. For example:

  • a car run,
  • or a marble run,
  • or a spinner activity,
  • a wind-up toy,
  • anything that can be stopped and started easily.

How to start?

I will talk us through each of the steps using the example for the word ‘GO’.

First phase

The first phase is a TEACHING/ LEARNING PHASE. In this phase we do not expect our student to do anything, to copy us or to point to the board. If they do that it is of course a huge bonus and we will celebrate it.

Our job is to simply MODEL/SHOW/GIVE EXAMPLES of how we can use the board, by steadily and regularly pointing to the chosen word or words. We do so across the day and across settings:

  • play
  • meal time
  • getting dressed/undressed
  • bath time
  • going to the car/shops
  • etc

Once we can be sure that our student has been submerged and SOAKED in seeing the coreboard being used, say after some 3–4 weeks of using it consistently…

Second phase

We can begin to move into the second phase which is the PRACTICE PHASE. By now the student has seen the boards and he or she has seen the word GO (as a example) modelled many times.

Now we can start to see if we can tempt our student into trying this out for themselves.

What sort of TEMPTING are we talking about? Take a look at the Prompt Hierarchy below, which shows us what to do to get our student to be independently communicating as soon as possible. 

The PROMPT HIERARCHY: what sort of prompting should we do, should we expect something from our student or how should we view this stage?

  1.  TEMPT AND PAUSE

I have the AAC near to the toy and each time the child starts another round of the activity I say clearly ‘GO’ and I point to the picture as do so. I then pause and wait to see what happens. NOTHING? Then…

  1. USE SIGNS AND BODY LANGUAGE

Next time the child starts another round I might be very animated and do a Makaton sign for GO as I say ‘GO’ and I make a very over point to the picture again. Then I wait. STILL NOTHING? OK then…

  1. OPEN-ENDED QUESTION

Now I might say ‘GO’ and follow with: ‘OOH I WONDER IF THERE IS A PICTURE TO POINT TO…’

‘OH LOOK HERE IS GO!’ I then point to GO.

 STILL NO RESPONSE?

  1. ASK FOR A RESPONSE

I might say ‘GO’ followed by ‘LOOK! LET’S POINT TO GO HERE ON THE PICTURE.’

STILL NO RESPONSE? 

  1.  PHYSICAL TOUCH

Next time I say ‘GO’ I will try and take the student’s hand, help isolate their finger and help him or her to point to the actual picture.

REMEMBER: Prompting serves a very important function in scaffolding learning for students BUT if we are constantly prompting kids, then we are teaching them to only communicate when someone tells them to. We want our student to become as independent in speaking and using words as possible.

So once I have done Physical Prompting I will try and phase back down to number 1 where all I need to do is point to the picture or look at the board with the aim that the student will then point to the picture.

Take away points:

  • Keep the learning phase pressure-free and model without expecting our student to jump in. In other words, let’s model first without expectation. Later we can have a little bit of expectation.
  • After they’ve been exposed to and have been ‘soaked’ in plenty of AAC input, then, YES, we can create an opportunity to help them say or point to the word on their own.
  • We can model BOTH with and without expectation.
  • Only after LOTS of exposure, use the least to most prompting hierarchy and start creating opportunities for a student to become an independent communicator.

Do get in touch if you have any questions or comments or if you would like some practical help.

I am always pleased to hear from you.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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Using AAC – Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Non-verbal and early Verbal Children

Using AAC – Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Non-verbal and early Verbal Children

Using a Core Vocabulary Board

Your Speech Therapist might have been advising you to introduce words to your child with the help of a CORE BOARD. What on earth is she talking about and why would we want to do this, I hear you think – and in fact this is what I get asked a lot, as I often do recommend using Core Boards.

Core boards belong to the category of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC ) and they can be really useful for:

  • Children or adults who cannot speak at all or who are very hard to understand.
  • Children who are slow to speak and have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, due to genetic conditions as Down Syndrome, Verbal dyspraxia, Autism or any other learning difficulty that means a child is slow to develop speech.

Here is what a Core board might look like, in fact this is one that I love to use. It is made by Beautiful Speech Life, there are a ton of similar boards out there for free. I have also made my own, you can check it out on my Instagram feed.

Using a Core Vocabulary Board

What is Core Vocabulary/ Core words?

Core vocabulary consists of the most common words used by children throughout a day. In 2003 Banajee and Dicarlo et al found that 50 % of pre-schoolers in their project used nine words consistently across their daily play and meal routines. These words are Core words and are typically the ones you can see on a board, like the one above.

How To Use It

Adults always first need to consistently model and show their child how to use a board. This is key! For example: Adult can point to “YOU” “WANT” ‘MORE” and then point to the cup of Water on the counter. Child could then reply either by shaking his/her head and/or pointing to “NOT” which also stands for “NO”. Then adult can point to “NOT” “MORE” and do an OK sign as well. Eventually Child can initiate a request and point to “I” “ WANT” “MORE” and then point to the cup on the counter.

This is not as cumbersome or limited as it first sounds or appears. Here’s why: As adult you can talk normally and, of course, many words you are using will not be on this board. But some will be, and you will be surprised how many you can find when you start using it. So you could say quite normally: Hey lovely (name of your child) would YOU LIKE some MORE water? The words in capital are on the board which you can point to as you speak normally. Basically, you are showing/saying to your child: “We can speak and these are the pictures we can use to help us; We call this TOTAL COMMUNICATION, as communication is so much more than just words! Great communication can be silent, where we use our facial expression, our smile, our eyes, our hand gestures, body movements and yes, of course, words. But when words fail us, these boards are so helpful.

This still does not answer your original question of: why would I want to do this, I want my child to talk!? You are a SPEECH Therapist, please help my child TALK, not point to pictures, that is not what I had in mind.

Let Me Explain

When speech is difficult for a child it doesn’t mean that there is nothing to talk about! Of course, we want all our children and all people to speak because it is the easiest and most effective way of communicating, no doubt! However, sometimes this is very hard for some children and whilst we are always working towards speech where possible, we also want to make sure that whilst figuring out how to speak, your child has a MEANS TO COMMUNICATE. Using a board like this might well be a temporary strategy but whilst you are using it and working on their speech you will find a reduction in tantrums and frustration as you child is able to express themselves more effectively.

Often we find that as soon as we offer a CORE VOCABULARY like the above sample a child who has had no or very few words suddenly blossoms and starts to point to new words on the board and starts to PRACTICE USING THESE WORDS!! Practice makes perfect, right? Yes it totally does! There is lots of evidence that tells us that using Core Vocabulary Boards ENHANCE AND SUPPORT SPEECH PRODUCTION AND NOT HINDER IT. Using a board like this will only ever be helpful to your child and will never make your child “lazy” – too lazy to speak? NO SUCH THING!

Here is what one of my parents says about the core board we use with her little boy:

“the board has been a game changer, my son is a visual learner so it really helps to have the board as he associates communication so much easier this way. We have incorporated his twin sister who models it’s use and have definitely seen improvement in speech through its support and his frustration around being unable to verbally communicate at times has definitely lessened”

K Connolly, Mother of Tom (aged 3.5 years).

Reading and hearing this makes me so happy!

In addition to general core board above I also sometimes use a Core Board that is specific to an activity, such as for example BLOWING BUBBLES. Below is an example of such a board, which you can use very nicely during a bubble blowing activity and sometimes it is a nice place to start for newcomers, this can be an easy introduction. You can download this and many similar boards on www.widgit.com for free!

Using a Core Vocabulary Board

There is so much more to say about AAC and using Coreboards, visit my Instagram you can find a bit more information on how I use them.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.