Creating communicative opportunities
Providing an enriched environment that is conducive to supporting the development of your student’s communication skills is key if you want communication to occur.
Each environment can provide opportunities to teach communication skills throughout the day because each setting comes with different expectations, behaviours, and language skills. Although it is next to impossible to predict and take into account every variable of every setting, it is possible to help students become less dependent on “stable environmental cues” (Downing, Hanreddy, Peckham-Hardin, 2015). By observing typical interactions between peers and determining the vocabulary used in a variety of environments, teachers can identify the necessary vocabulary and communication skills that need to be taught in order for their student to socialize with other students.
Here are two suggestions that support the process of identifying communication opportunities for students with significant disabilities.
ACE — Analyzing the Communication Environment developed by Rowland and Schweigert (1993);
Social Networks: A Communication Inventory for Individuals with Complex Communication Needs and Their Communication Partners developed by Blackstone and Berg (2012)
Another strategy that can help identify communication opportunities is mapping the student’s social contacts. This process is known as ‘sociograms’ and is usually done as a classroom activity.
Ask students to name peers/friends who are part of their social network. The teacher may ask the following questions:
- Who would you most like to work with in a group activity?
- Who would you like to eat lunch with?
- Who would you like to play with during recess?
- Who would you like to sit with in class?
- Whom would you like to …
Once students have answered all questions, the teacher compiles all of the data into a class-wide map to identify students who are most at risk of being isolated because of a limited social network. The gathered information helps put in place interventions that support the development of healthy school relationships. (Downing, Hanreddy, & Peckham-Hardin, 2015)
Identifying Opportunities to Teach Interaction skills
The next step after determining what vocabulary and communication skills should be taught is to identify ‘when’ are the best opportunities to teach this and to have students practice interaction skills.
The following, taken from “Teaching Communication Skills to Students with Severe Disabilities,” Downing, Hanreddy & Peckham-Hardin, 2015, provides a list of questions that the supporting adult can ask themselves during different activities during the day. These questions can help identify what is needed to encourage social interactions, communications with adults and/or peers, and opportunities to teach communication skills as well as inappropriate moments to teach communication skills.
The adult can ask the following questions for every activity occurring in the classroom.
1. Can the student interact with other students? With the teacher?
2. What can the student “say” about the activity? To whom?
√ Request help, more information, materials, or a particular partner
√ Reject the activity or a part of it or certain materials
√ Respond to simple yes/no questions
√ Respond to simple questions using graphic or tactile representations
√ Ask questions
√ Comment on whether the activity is fun
3. Can the activity be modified (slightly, moderately, considerably) to allow for more communicative interactions?
√ Partner learning
√ Cooperative learning
√ Small groups
4. Can different students request material from the student with disabilities instead of getting it on their own?
Identifying opportunities to teach interaction skills
Teaching Opportunities during Regular Occurring Situations
Regular occurring situations are not specific to an individual person, but rather are embedded within a range of daily activities and routines. Identifying and building upon these teaching opportunities, teams can be sure to target multiple functions for communication throughout the day.
How to be a Responsive Communication Partner
The following are “strategies for responsive communication partners to use to support the communication efforts of students with [significant] disabilities. Adults and peers without disabilities that interact with the student may need to adopt the following characteristics of a responsive communication partner” (Downing & Chen, 2015).
Increase physical proximity by moving closer to the student
Establish eye contact
Wait and look with expectation for the student to respond or initiate communication
Accept and respond to the student’s current means of communication
Support and expand the means that the student has to express him- or herself
Recognize non symbolic communication
Provide wait time
Be less directive
Teach in natural contexts
Create a need to practice skills
Motivate the student to communicate
Establish a student-centered approach
Enhance social environment
Promote enjoyable communicative interactions
Model the expected behaviour
Use prompts for shaping communication behaviour (not overly intrusive)
Fade communicative prompts
Reinforce desired behaviour
Practical Applications for Unaided Communication
The following strategies are taken from Considerations in Developing and Acquiring Communication Aids by Mirenda, P. 2015 in Teaching Communication Skills to Students with Severe Disabilities, Downing, Hanreddy, Peckham-Hardin, 2015).
A communication dictionary acts as a translation aid by describing a student’s actions, gestures or sounds along with their meanings.
Action Meaning How to respond
Student runs and hits classroom door Need to use the washroom You need to use the
washroom? Let the student go to the washroom.
The dictionary can take the form of a wall poster or a notebook. The idea is to document the meaning behind various gestures, vocalizations, and other unaided communication modes a student uses so that his or her meanings can be determined easily to prevent communication breakdowns.
Students will use any mode of communication to get their message across. If the mode is socially acceptable and intelligible to both familiar and unfamiliar listeners, then there is no reason to be concerned. However, if the mode of communication is socially unacceptable, then the student must learn a more socially acceptable way of communicating. Mirenda, 2015
Real Object Symbols
Students use a three-dimensional object or partial object that stands for a person, activity, place, or thing. They are created specifically for the student using them. For example, a cup would be used to show that he/she is thirsty. “The advantage of real object symbols is that most students can learn to use them quite easily. The disadvantage is that many messages, such as “I am sad” or “Thank you,” cannot be represented by real objects. In addition, students with motor impairments may have difficulty manipulating real object symbols” (Mirenda, 2015).
Tangible symbols are usually used by students who are blind or visually impaired. They are whole or partial objects used to represent people, places, activities, or things through the sense of touch or the sense of hearing.
Examples of tangible symbols:
“The advantage of tangible is their portability, but the disadvantage is that they often need to be constructed on an individual basis to accommodate the students’ experiences. Tangible symbol instructional resources are available from Design to Learn, and a set of 25 Standardized Tactile Augmentative Communication Symbols (STACS) is available form the American Printing House for the Blind (Mirenda, 2015). https://www.aph.org/product/stacs-standardized-tactile-augmentive-communication-symbols-kit/
Photographs are used to represent specific people, places, activities, or items. “The advantage of photographs is that they are easier to carry around than real object symbols. The disadvantages are that they can be time-consuming to produce, and students with visual impairments may have difficulty recognizing them unless they are enlarged and very clear” (Mirenda, 2015).
Line Drawing Symbols
Sets of black-and-white or coloured line drawing symbols usually include symbols for people, places, activities, items, verbs, feelings, descriptors, and social etiquette messages. Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) (Mayer-Johnson) is the most commonly used symbol set in North America. “The advantage of line drawing symbols is that they represent many types of messages that cannot be communicated with objects or photographs. The disadvantage is that they need to be purchased, […] and students with visual impairments may have difficulty recognizing them unless they are enlarged or otherwise enhanced. Some line-drawing symbols are fairly abstract and students with severe cognitive disabilities may have difficulty interpreting their meanings without practice.” (Miranda, 2015)
Letters and Words (a must)
“Letters and words can be used for communication by students with disabilities who have at least basic literacy skills. The advantage of [letters and words] is that many of them can be placed on a single page and that people who can read can easily understand them. The disadvantage is that students with disabilities often have difficulty learning to read and write well enough to use them.” (Mirenda, 2015). That being said, a student with significant disabilities should be exposed and have access to letters and words at all times.
“Core vocabulary is a small set of simple words, in any language, that are used frequently and across contexts (Cross, Baker, Klotz & Badman, 1997). Core vocabulary contains all parts of speech - nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections and serves as a great medium for teaching language. Core words are familiar and most of them are short - six letters or less. Only a few core words have more than six letters (for example, "sometimes" has nine letters).” The advantage of using core vocabulary words is it allows students to express themselves using a wide variety of concepts with a very small number of words. Research shows that 80% of what we say is communicated with only the 200 most basic words in our language (Jazzar, C.). “Using a communication system designed around core vocabulary also facilitates natural language development.” (Pruett, M.D., 2011). The disadvantages are more in line with challenges. “Teaching words like ‘it,’ ‘do,’ and ‘not’ is a lot different than teaching words like ‘cookie’ and ‘bubbles.’ […] It’s not easy to teach abstract concepts and most core words are a lot more abstract than the nouns, verbs, and descriptors we focused on 10+ years ago.” (Zangari, C., 2013).To learn more about Core Vocabulary, visit
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Downing, June E., Hanreddy, Amy, Peckham-Hardin, Kathryn D. “Teaching Communication Skills to Students with Severe Disabilities.” Third Edition. Paul H. Prookes Publishing Co., 2015
Jazar, C. “AAC and Special Needs: The Importance of Core Vocabulary.” Centre of Excellence for Speech and Language Development - English Montreal School Board. Retrieved [October 23rd, 2017] from Retrieved [October 15th, 2017] from
Pruett, M.D. (2011). “Core vocabulary makes communication meaningful.” Innovations and Perspectives. Virginia Department of Educations’s Training & Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved [October 23rd, 2017] from
Zangari, C. (2013). “Teaching Core Vocabulary.” Retrieved [October 23rd, 2017] from