Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #10: Distance Learning and Communications Systems

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Did you know that by the time children are 3 years old, they have heard, seen, and experienced millions of words? Language is all around them and provides a model for them as they learn to communicate. However, students who have a communication system, such as a core board, a picture exchange system, eye gaze board, or a computer program that allows the student to press pictures to express themselves have far fewer opportunities to see, hear and experience using their own communication systems. There is a direct link between experiencing communication and learning communication. 

What can teachers do to support students who are using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) even when they are not in the same place as the student? Being able to tell people what you want, like, dislike, how you feel, ask questions, and comment about your life should not be relegated to one location. Communication should not happen only during one part of the day (school vs. home) or one class (math vs. art). Being able to communicate when and where you want to is a basic human right, it should be available and its use should be emphasized all day.  

When working at a distance with someone who uses AAC it is best to have someone else present, in addition to the student who uses AAC, during the session, but it doesn’t have to be a parent. Siblings, grandparents, or other adults who are part of the household can all be (and should be) communication partners. It is also important to remember the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL): multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.

What Can Teachers Do


Collaboration among general and special educators, speech-language therapists, and families is vital. If a student who needs AAC does not have access to their AAC, then they do not really have an opportunity to learn. They cannot fully interact with, or respond to, the content. Assure that the student has their communication system at home, battery charged, and ready to use. All of the adults who work with the student should be able to use their primary communication system rather than using a different one for each assignment or interaction. Learn to model using the device or screen capture of the device. Don’t worry about perfection. 

a computer screen with a grid of pictures and words that may be used as an augmentative and alternative communication device

An example of an AAC device

Use time wisely.

There are only so many hours in a day, and for some students, only a few of these times of day are optimal for student engagement. This may be because of student stamina, family schedules, or a number of other reasons. Use those hours well and check out some UDL ideas for engagement at .

Use the device to model.

Aided language modeling is one of the best ways to support language learning for AAC users. As teachers prepare their lessons, use a core board or the student’s AAC to highlight and model keywords through regular conversations. Take some time and explicitly teach others to model through an "I do, we do, you do" structure. Besides parents, teach family members including siblings to model, and teach friends to model. Teach modeling by modeling. The TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS) publication #5 “Connecting Core Words, Aided Language Modeling, and Literacy” is a great resource if you want to learn more about modeling and aided language. 

a grid with different picture and word symbols related to science, including "first, then, last" and "change"

An example of a fringe board

Prepare students and families.

As you plan for the week, consider what questions you will be asking the student several times or the concepts that are the most important. Make sure to share that information with families so they can work on them before and after lessons, if possible, and reinforce them at other times. A book club may be an excellent strategy for continued reinforcement, communicating with peers, and bringing together home and school.

Use the device to model.

It is so important it bears repeating. When sharing materials with students, every student should get a core, fringe, or topic vocabulary board that includes the words needed for active participation in the session. For instance, a low-tech core board may not include words that are not often used, such as “gravity” or “reaction,” that may be needed for a science unit. In this case, a topic or ‘fringe’ word board will be needed. If the student has a dynamic device, those words might be found under a tab for science content. Model for the family how to use those resources during the lesson. 

Core vocabulary

Fringe vocabulary

Topic Boards

Core vocabulary has the 36 most commonly used words. People use a core board to communicate using these words. 

Project Core also has some good resources

Fringe vocabulary are words that are used much less than Core vocabulary. It may be content specific or may be personally important.

Topic boards are a set of vocabulary that is specific to a particular topic (e.g., reading The Hungry Caterpillar or learning about light)

Materials on a table for a science experiment. There is a container of vinegar, baking soda, and glow in the dark paints. There are also goggles and a black light.

Science Experiment Materials

Get a reaction.

As you build lessons, think about what is going to get kids talking. Is there a gross fact that will make students groan? A science experiment that will make students gasp? A knock-knock joke that will make them smile? Any topic that really connects to their lives ... for example show and tell about a favorite toy with core words, a picture book with family members, or making a favorite snack. Use that content, material, and enthusiasm to inspire communication. And, remember to use principles of Universal Design for Learning to make sure there are multiple ways to access and respond to information.

To teach AAC use, we must use AAC, model AAC, and engage learners with AAC. Universal Design for Learning, student choice, and adult flexibility remain key components for student learning, whether the students are in the school building or their homes. 

In the TIES Distance Learning article on morning meetings, we discussed the importance of morning meetings and social engagement for all students, including those who use AAC. It also has ideas for creating opportunities for peer interactions. The TIPS publication called "How Peers Can Support AAC Use by Students with Significant Communication Needs" is a good place to get more ideas and information.

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #10, May, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Taub, D., & Kearns, J. (2020). Distance learning and communication systems (DL #10). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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