TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #4:
Successfully Using Communication Practices in the Inclusive Class

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Supporting students with significant communication needs who require augmentative alternative communication (AAC) use in inclusive classrooms can be challenging. However, the inclusive class is also the place with the most potential for supporting students to use all their communicative modes, including their AAC devices, because of the number of opportunities to practice communication.

Everyone benefits when we communicate well. In other words, when everyone models the use of AAC for a variety of communicative purposes, individuals better understand one another. When the school community collaborates to ensure fidelity in the implementation of communication strategies, the entire school community gains.


The inclusive classroom has proven to be the most effective placement for supporting students who are AAC users and have complex communication challenges (Biggs, Carter, Mazur, Barnes, & Bumble, 2018; Biggs, Carter, & Gustafson, 2017; Ganz, Rispoli, Mason, & Hong, 2014; Kleinert, Kearns, Liu, Lazarus, Thurlow (2019).  In inclusive classrooms there is an opportunity for everyone (e.g., teachers, paraprofessionals, peers, etc.) to model the use of AAC for a variety of communicative purposes. Peers play an especially important part in the inclusive classroom. Encouraging peers to use AAC provides a wonderful opportunity to develop relationships and increase understanding between classmates.


Aided language modeling is modeling of the use of a student’s AAC system by individuals in the environment who do not have significant communications needs.

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

Core words are words (e.g. verbs, adjectives/adverbs, and pronouns) used for a variety of communicative intents (e.g. requesting – “want”; commenting – “love”; refusing “stop”). These are the words that comprise most of the content in a typical conversation. There are a relatively small set of core words, which students can successfully use in a range of communicative opportunities and interactions throughout the day. 

Fringe words are nouns that are specific to persons, places, or things that are highly specific or unique to the user and/or an activity in which they are involved.

Motor planning refers to planning, and carrying out a motor activity (in this case ones that are supportive of communication) in the correct sequence. 

Multi-modal communication refers to the many ways people communicate with each other, including spoken language, written language, eye-gaze, facial expressions, gestures, signs, or combinations of these.


Multi-modal communication encourages the student to use a variety of communicative forms, for a variety of purposes. This includes the use of AAC.  And, as with all learning, an increased number of opportunities to communicate results in improved communication.

Acknowledge and Attribute. To help students with significant communications needs develop new communications skills as they participate in inclusive classrooms, it is important to acknowledge and attribute meaning to any potential communicative effort even if, and especially if, the listener is not sure of the intended message. Acknowledge by specifying the communicative behavior and the intended message (e.g., “Your smile tells me you like __” Or “Yikes, crying tells me you don’t want to ___; you are saying “no”.) Even challenging behaviors are communicative and generally occur because other communicative signals have not been acknowledged.

This clip shows a teacher modeling “you want more” but the student responds by pointing to “no” on the board.  The speech-language pathologist (SLP) responds by acknowledging and expanding on the student’s “no” indication.

Ensure Access to AAC Always and Everywhere.  In order to enhance access to AAC systems, it is a good idea to have both low-tech and high-tech AAC options available. Maintenance of the symbol/word position on the array is essential for fostering motor planning.

Access to content words is also important. This enables students with significant communications needs to participate in class discussions.

Speech-generating device

Speech-generating device

Low-tech vocabulary lanyard

Low-tech vocabulary lanyard

A folder with a core array and fringe options.

A folder with a core array and fringe options.

Illustration of science symbols/words along with question words needed for participating in science.

Illustration of science symbols/words along with question words needed for participating in science.

Encourage AAC Use by the Student Without Requiring It. The many forms of multi-modal communication (e.g., eye-gaze, facial expressions, gestures, signs, or combinations of these) makes it easy for an AAC user to communicate intents. The conversation can be expanded by modeling on the individual’s device or using a separate picture symbol array on a folder, lanyard, or tablet to model asking a question or confirming the student’s communication. It is important however, to use the student’s preferred mode (e.g. facial expressions, eye-gaze, gestures, signs, etc.) while encouraging and modeling but NOT requiring them to use the device.

This video shows an example of aided language modeling.

Model, Model, and Model More. Aided language modeling is a highly effective AAC intervention strategy. Modeling slows down the partner’s speech so the student has time to process the partner’s message.  Individuals are often not aware of how fast they speak. Not only is this helpful for students using symbol and word arrays or speech generating devices (SGD), but also for students who use oral speech but need to work on vocal production.  Using core words on lanyard, classroom poster, or speech generating device will be helpful.

Wait Expectantly. Waiting for the student to initiate or respond encourages participation and improves communication. This is especially important if a motor response is required. Some students may need up to 30 seconds to process the request and execute a response. Some students may need even more time.

Teach Everyone. Everyone who interacts with a student with significant communications needs should be taught how the student communicates. This includes teaching professionals, parents, paraprofessionals, and especially peers. Teach them to recognize all the communicative forms the student uses. With the appropriate permission, video clips of the student communicating can be a very helpful tool to share with others to help them learn how a student communicates. Teach everyone to use AAC with the student for a variety of communicative purposes.


Successfully including a student with significant communication needs in a general education classroom requires a team. This team includes all the Ps – professionals, parents, and peers. It is especially important to include peers. This team expects communication, attributes meaning, ensures access to AAC, encourages AAC use but does not require the student to use it, and waits an adequate amount of time for the student to respond. Everyone benefits when we better understand one another, and when multi-modal communication is the norm in a classroom.


PrAACtical AAC

This website has a wealth of resources related to core vocabulary and implementation strategies. The site “supports a community of professionals and families who are determined to improve the communication and literacy abilities of people with significant communication difficulties.”

Project Core

This web site operated by the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has many resources for educators and other school professionals related to core vocabulary.


  • Biggs, E., Carter, E., & 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., Carter, E., Mazur, E., Barnes, K., & Bumble, J. (2018). Embedding peer implemented aided AAC modeling with a peer network intervention for students with complex communication needs. Exceptional Children, 86, 66 85.
  • Ganz, J., Rispoli, M., Mason, R., & Hong, E. (2014). Moderation of effects of AAC based on setting and types of aided AAC on outcome variables: An aggregate study of single-case research with individuals with ASD. Developmental Neurohabilitation, 17(3), 184–192.
  • Kleinert, J., Kearns, J., Liu, K. K., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2019). Communication competence in the inclusive setting: A review of the literature. In TIES Center Report (No. 103). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, The TIES Center.


Tobii Dynavox (2019). Boardmaker Symbols © used with permission.

TIPS Series: Tip #4, January, 2020

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. (2020). Successfully using communication practices in the inclusive class (TIPS Series: Tip #4). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota (# H326Y170004) and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. 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. There are six 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

University of Minnesota

Institute on Community Integration

2025 East River Parkway

Minneapolis, MN 55414

Phone: 612-626-1530

This document is available in alternate formats upon request.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.

TIES TIPS partner organization logos: Arizona Dept. of Education, CAST, UNC Charlotte, NCEO, University of Kentucky, The University of North Carolina Greensboro, IDEAs that Work.