TIES TIPS Communicative Competence
TIP #29: Creating Communication Opportunities and Tracking Progress
Creating communication opportunities and tracking communication goals can prove to be challenging as communication is an interaction dependent upon two individuals - the sender and the receiver (see TIES TIP 17). Students with complex communication needs may use a variety of communicative forms (e.g., eye gaze, pointing, vocalizations, signs, body language, and speech generating devices). This TIES TIP in the communication series differentiates communication opportunities from student response opportunities, provides strategies for encouraging communication across the day, and introduces ways for monitoring communication goals.
The National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities (NJC, 2016) describes the rights of individuals to communicate for a variety of purposes and have access to communication instruction and augmentative alternative communication (AAC) devices to assist them in ensuring their communication is understood. Students may have access to their AAC systems but lack opportunities to use them (Calculator & Black, 2009). Many research articles have emphasized the need to integrate communication objectives into the general education curriculum and routines rather than working on communication skills in isolation (Calculator & Black, 2009). In addition, Chung and Carter (2013) suggest that both uses of the AAC device and peer interactions can be increased with interventions.
Strategies to Create Communication Opportunities
Strategies to create communication opportunities begin with thinking through the purposes of communication. Offering communication opportunities to meet these basic communication purposes (such as requests, refusing, commenting, sharing information, expressing feelings, and preferences, and engaging in conversation) is a great place to start. These communication purposes can also be primary communication targets, especially for new AAC users. Using a planning tool, such as a Communication Targets and Activities Matrix (Table 1), may be helpful in identifying those opportunities in a general education schedule both within the classroom and at natural transitions throughout the school.
Table 1: Communication Targets and Activities
Each X in the table equals successful following a model or independent communication; 21 observations; 11 with peers, 10 with adults.
In another example, Table 2 illustrates how different communication strategies are integrated with different activities and purposes of communication across the day. The communication targets are on the top – request, respond, refuse, choose a preferred activity, etc. While the schedule/routine is listed in the column on the left side (Morning Routine, Language Arts, Specials, Lunch). The boxes are filled in with the communication strategy and when the AAC device will be used. For example, the student will use the Speech Generating Device (SGD) for communication that requires multiple words but will use partner-assisted scanning with a head nod for making choices.
Table 2: Communication Strategies Integrated with the Target Activity and Purpose of Communication
Respond (answer questions)
Initiations (comments, feelings)
Use SGD to request help
Use SGD to answer questions
Use SGD to comment
User partner assisted scanning (PAS) to choose center
Use head not to confirm or refuse
Language Arts (Reading/Writing)
Use SGD to answer questions about story
Use SGD to comment on story
Use PAS to choose story, reading partner
Use head nod to confirm or refuse
Specials (Art, PE, Music, Technology)
Use SGD to answer question
Use SGD to comment on the game, music, or art performance
Use PAS to choose exercise, music, or art performance
Use head nod to confirm or refuse
Use SGD to request help
Use SGD to tell story/joke to peers
Use PAS to choose food
Use head nod to confirm or refuse
The Student Environment Task Tool (SETT; Zabala, 2005) may also be useful for identifying communication opportunities and the specific communicative form that might be appropriate for the situation. An SGD may not be needed in all communication situations. The Environment, Task, Tool portion of the SETT (See Table 3) helps the team think through the communication tasks in each environment and the best AAC tool to use. It is important to note that having the SGD available all the time is very important even though other forms of AAC may be used. A good rule of thumb is to allow the student to decide which form of AAC they prefer to use. If the partner doesn’t understand what is being communicated, then the partner can respond and model using the student’s device.
Table 3: Environment, Task, and Tool components of the Student Environment Task Tool (SETT)
Partner assisted scanning
In some cases, the strategic creation of communication opportunities may be necessary to provide more opportunities for communicating. For example, team members may purposefully provide a reason for the student to communicate, such as ‘forgetting’ to provide a needed material, skipping a turn, or losing an item in plain sight.
Strategies for Monitoring Communication Progress
As presented in the National Joint Committee for the Communication Bill of Rights (Brady et al., 2016), students need instruction in using a communication device as well as other communication skills. Some important communication goals may include more frequent communication, greater independent communication, use of a greater variety of communication topics, initiation of communication, and use of conventional communication forms, such as spelling and literacy. Clearly outlining the communication targets helps the team focus on those important outcomes.
Both the SETT and the Communication Targets and Activities tools used to identify the communicative opportunities can be used as data collection sheets to capture observations of communicative interactions. Constructing a blank matrix, similar to the one used for identifying communication opportunities, such as Table 2, is a simple tool for tracking communication data that indicates the communication targets on the top with the activities listed in the left-hand column. The X indicates an observed communication by the student. In addition, the total number of times peers and adults model each communicative purpose can be entered as tally marks.
Alternatively, a more formal data sheet can be used to capture the data. The data sheet in Table 3 includes the target, the observation opportunity, the date, and the communication form observed. It can also be used to record prompt levels or a simple tally of observations.
Table 4: Student Communication Data Sheet
Whether a simple tally or more descriptive data is collected, tracking communication doesn’t have to be complicated. Anyone can collect data, the general education teacher, the special education teacher, the Speech Language Pathologist during integrated services, and/or instructional assistants.
Teaching and tracking communication opportunities present some challenges, as communication is not as simple as answering a question correctly or responding to typical assessment strategies. It is unique to the individual and requires informed communication partners (adults, peers, families) to provide opportunities, recognize and reinforce communication, and assure that the sender’s message is understood and acknowledged by the receiver. These tools can help teams identify and capture those opportunities to ensure growth in communication skills.
- Home site for the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities:
- Brady, N. C., Bruce, S., Goldman, A., Erickson, K., Mineo, B., Ogletree, B. T., Paul, D., Romski, M., Sevcik, R., Siegel, E., Schoonover, J., Snell, M., Sylvster, L., & Wilkinson, K. (2016). Communication services and supports for individuals with severe disabilities: Guidancefor assessment and intervention. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 121(2), 121–138.
- Calculator, S., & Black, T. (2009). Validation of an inventory of best practices in the provision of augmentative and alternative communication services to students with severedisabilities in general education classrooms. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 329–342.
- Chung, Y., & Carter, E. W. (2013). Promoting peer interactions in inclusive classrooms for students who use speech-generating devices. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 38(2), 94–109.
- Zabala, J. (2005). Ready, SETT, go! Getting started with the SETT framework. Closing the Gap: Computer Technology in Special Education and Rehabilitation, 23(6), 1–3.
All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:
- Kearns, J. (2022). Creating Communication Opportunities and Tracking Progress (TIPS Series: Tip #29). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.
TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.
TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert
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