TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #1:
How Peers Can Support AAC Use by Students with Significant Communication Needs

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


The inclusive classroom has the distinct advantage of the constant presence of peers who are competent communicators. Encouraging peers to use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) with students with significant cognitive disabiliites who also have complex communication needs increases access to repeated, interactive, and generative language opportunities across environments.


A recent review of the literature (Kleinert & Kearns, in preparation) found that peer-mediated supports were a significant factor in increasing AAC use among students with significant communication needs. Peer-mediated supports “substantially increase” social interactions among students who use AAC, which in turn increases the use of AAC (Biggs, Carter, & Gustafson, 2017; Biggs, Carter, Mazur, Barnes, & Bumble, in press).


This video clip highlights how a preschool AAC user and his classmates use the device in shared instructional time.

Augmentative  and alternative communication (AAC) refers to communication methods (other than oral speech) used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas (Kleinert, Holman, McSheehan, & Kearns, 2010).

Peer-mediated support involves peers as communication partners directly in the use of the AAC device. 


Use Peer Support Arrangements

Educators can use peer support arrangements to establish supports for academic learning and AAC use in general education or inclusive education arrangements (Biggs, Carter, & Gustafson, 2017). Peers in an inclusive pre-school class can support an AAC user in a variety of academic and social activities that increase the opportunities for the AAC user to communicate.

a peer using an eye-gaze system made from a sports card page

A peer uses an eye-gaze system made from a sports card page.

Peers use the student’s AAC system when communicating with the student. This is called aided language modeling. In addition, as they get to know the AAC user, peers can learn a variety of other communication strategies including partner-assisted scanning, sign language, acknowledge/interpret body language, eye-gaze, or facial expressions that may be unique to the AAC user. In the photo on the left, a peer uses an eye-gaze system made from a sports card page. Peers can also help other classmates communicate with the AAC user. Inclusive education can provide optimal opportunities for beginning AAC users to communicate, especially in cooperative learning groups.

Use Peer Support Networks

This video clip highlights a peer support network for J. The teacher models partner-assisted scanning to include J in the conversation.

Additionally, educators can use peer support networks to establish social opportunities that lead to friendships, and to develop social and communication skills in extra-curricular activities beyond the classroom (Biggs, Carter, Mazur, Barnes, & Bumble, in press). This strategy has fewer opportunities than the peer support arrangements that occur in inclusive classrooms.

Watch as an AAC user shares jokes with his friends.

Peer support networks often focus on high interest areas such as school technology teams, sports teams, music/newspaper/yearbook/drama groups, and morning message. In the absence of formal peer support networks, informal groups established for social purposes can also be used, including greeter groups, lunch buddies, and gym workout buddies. To support communication in these types of arrangements, special communication devices with high interest topics added to the student’s device are essential to support AAC use. As in the peer arrangements, teaching peers the strategies for successfully communicating with the AAC user with or without the device remains an essential element of the strategy.

Pay Attention to Valued Social Roles

In any of these groups, it is important that ALL group members, including the AAC users, become known for their unique contributions to the group. This allows healthy friendships to grow, gives the AAC user a voice, and ensures new skills for all the participating students.


Inclusion, friendship, and communication ensure valued social roles and life-long learning. Peer- mediated supports combined with training are essential for supporting AAC users. Embedding simple, evidence-based strategies that involve peers will serve to increase success in inclusive settings for students with significant cognitive disabilities who have complex communication needs.


Communicating with Partner-Assisted Scanning . This video from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center demonstrates partner-assisted scanning, a communication technique that can be used with children who are nonverbal. It is a useful strategy to let a child make choices and to enable the child to express his or her wants and needs. It can be a useful tool for building skills that allow the child to use a more sophisticated communication system.

Kentucky Peer Support Network . This professional learning project focuses on developing peer support networks and peer support arrangement in Kentucky classrooms.


  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., & Gustafson, J. (2017). Efficacy of peer support arrangements to increase peer interaction and AAC use. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 122(1), 25–48.

  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., Mazur, E., Barnes, K., & Bumble, J. L. (in press). Embedding peer-implemented aided AAC modeling within a peer network intervention for students with complex communication needs. Exceptional Children.

  • Carter, E. W., Asmus, J., Moss, C. K., Biggs, E. E., Bolt, D. M., Born, T. L., … Weir, K. (2016). Randomized evaluation of peers support arrangements to support the inclusion of high school student with severe disabilities. Exceptional Children, 82(2), 209–233.

  • Therrien, M., Light, J., & Pope, L. (2016). Systematic review of the effects of interventions to promote peer interactions for children who use aided AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 32(2), 81–93.

  • Thiemann-Bourque, K., Feldmiller, S., Hoffman, L., & Johner, S. (2018). Incorporating a peer-mediated approach into speech-generating device intervention: Effects on communication of preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 1–17. Retrieved from

  • Thiemann-Bourque, K., McGuff, S., & Goldsteinc, H. (2017). Training peer partners to use a speech-generating device with classmates with autism spectrum disorder: Exploring communication outcomes across preschool contexts. Journal of Speech, Language, Hearing Research, 60, 2648–2662.


Video clips were provided by the TAALC Project (Teaching Age-Appropriate Academic Learning through Communication) at the University of Kentucky’s Human Development Institute. TAALC is supported by the Kentucky Department of Education.

TIPS Series: Tip #1, June 2019

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

  • Kearns, J., & Kleinert, J. (2019). How peers can support AAC use by students with significant communication needs (TIPS Series: Tip #1). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 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 University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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