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Students who rely on augmentative and alternative communication – literacy and curriculum access

Written by: Marion Stanton
4 min read

Over the past 25 years, I have been involved in supporting the inclusion of students who have complex communication needs in mainstream education. In particular, I have worked with schools to support students who rely on AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) in developing their literacy and accessing the curriculum.

Students who rely on AAC typically have little or no speech and often have difficulty with movement. This group of students have a very broad spectrum of ability, both cognitively and physically, which makes it virtually impossible to categorise them into ‘types’. Students who rely on AAC may have cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome (or other chromosome disorders), Rett syndrome, muscular dystrophy or any number of conditions that make it difficult for them to demonstrate their understanding and record their work.

AAC provides a way for students to communicate by a means other than speech. For a literate student, it might involve typing using specialist software on a tablet-style computer that speaks out loud as the student types. The process can be made more efficient by the use of word prediction (such as that which many of us use on various mobile technologies). For students who are not yet literate, the picture is more complex. They will need to rely on pictures. A number of recognised picture sets (known as symbol systems) can be utilised. In this scenario, the student learns to communicate by choosing the symbol (picture) that they recognise for the communication they wish to convey.

The use of symbol systems rather than typing inevitably means that the student is restricted to the vocabulary we provide. The average symbol-based vocabulary is unlikely to have more than a couple of thousand words at the most, yet by the age of six, the average student will have a repertoire of 5,000 words (Dunbar and Perkins, no date). Even the most sophisticated vocabulary set that relies on symbols is therefore likely to restrict the student to a very early developmental stage that may not reflect their capability.

Access to literacy

Literacy is paramount for this cohort of students to be able to access the curriculum. Research on literary instruction by Karen Erickson has led to the development of a substantial literacy instructional system (for example, see Erickson et al., 1997; Cunningham and Hall, 1996), which has been modified so that it can be accessed by students who have severe disabilities (Erickson and Koppenhaver, 1995). While this approach, known as 4-Blocks, is widely used in Australia and New Zealand, as well as part of the USA, take-up in the UK has been slow. One reason for this may be that there is a lack of emphasis on phonics, which predominates in the UK. With this in mind, a team of teachers from Communication and Learning Enterprises (CandLE), a not-for-profit teaching organisation supporting students who have complex needs in mainstream schools throughout the UK, have been working on a UK system. The system, known as ‘Literacy Resources for All’, takes good practice in literacy teaching in the UK and combines this with useful elements inspired by 4-Blocks (Stanton, 2018).

Literacy for all

An understanding of how learning difficulties can arise through environmental factors, rather than being intrinsic to the student, underpins the programme. Physical access, for example, is one environmental factor that can be a barrier to learning. If a student is struggling to access computer software because of movement difficulty, their ability to focus on the cognitive task diminishes. This may impact negatively on working memory, with the result that the student may be assessed as working at a lower level than their real cognitive ability would suggest.

According to Vygotsky (1978), learners can only make progress if they are being taught within their zone of proximal development. This means that learning takes place in a sphere that is just beyond the current knowledge and ability of the student. If students with complex communication needs are being assessed at lower than their actual levels of ability, their potential to make progress is compromised. If resources and materials can be adapted so that the student is required to make the least possible physical effort to access the curriculum, their working memory, and consequent ability to demonstrate skills, may be improved.

Teachers at CandLE advocate the use of the communication software with which the student is most familiar and has the easiest access to when adapting the curriculum. It is important that all of the learning materials are loaded onto the software, as well as frameworks for recording. Students who are unable to physically manipulate a textbook or a worksheet need independent access to an electronic version that will give them the most time-efficient and least effortful access method. Those who have to rely on teaching assistants to turn pages, record work or read out loud are having to work harder to focus on the work than those who can access their work independently, so access should be as independent as possible.

The author of this article is the Managing Director of CandLE, an organisation offering chargeable literacy programmes for special and mainstream schools. To find out more about AAC, please visit:


Cunningham PM and Hall DP (1996) Becoming literate in first and second grades: Six years of multimethod, multilevel instruction. In: Leu DJ, Kinzer CK and Hinchman KA (eds) Literacies for the 21st Century: Research and Practice. Chicago: National Reading Conference, pp. 295–304.

Dunbar J and Perkins M (nd) Building vocabulary with AAC users using the vocabulary builder. Available at: (accessed 20 November 2018).

Erickson KA and Koppenhaver DA (1995) Developing a literacy program for children with severe disabilities. Reading Teacher 48(8): 676.

Erickson K, Koppenhaver D, Yoer D et al. (1997) Integrated communication and literacy instruction for a child with multiple disabilities. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 12: 142–150.

Stanton M (2018) The Communication and  Learning Enterprise (CandLE) Literacy Programme: Literacy Resources for All. Available at: (accessed 14 October 2018).

Vygotsky L (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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