TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #23: Supporting the Communication Needs of Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) Users who are also English Learners

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)

Students with significant cognitive disabilities who are also English Learners or emergent multilingual language users present unique opportunities for inclusive education teams. These teams need to develop skills and practices that open the classroom to a wide variety of learners and maximize the language skills of all the learners.  A top strategy for opening classrooms for emergent multilingual students is the use of translanguaging (García, Johnson, S., Seltzer, 2017) which intentionally creates opportunities for English Learners to communicate across their linguistic abilities rather than requiring that they use only one language at a time. Those English learners with significant cognitive disabilities who use an AAC device may use three or more languages. The use of an AAC device is often considered a different language (Coogan 2020).  This TIP highlights strategies to assist teams supporting multilingual Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) users.

Translanguaging Explained

The term “translanguaging” originated in the 1980s in Wales where educator and researcher Cen Williams coined the term trawsieithu. Bilingual educator Colin Baker (Baker, 2011) translated the Welsh word to English. It refers to a teaching practice in some bilingual Welsh/English classrooms where students heard the teacher speak or read a text in one language but the student produced speech or text in the other language. Rather than asking students to keep their Welsh and English language skills separate and use only one language at a time, the approach asked students to use both languages, together, to promote learning. Baker believed that translanguaging helped students develop a more in-depth understanding of instructional content, increased their proficiency in the weaker language, strengthened the relationship between home and school, and improved communication with classmates who had a variety of proficiency levels in each language (Garcia & Lin, 2017). According to Baker, using both languages together in a classroom improves language learning.

Since 2011, the term translanguaging has been applied to bilingual speakers in different ways by different researchers and educators. One perspective is that teachers can create classroom situations to promote translanguaging for multilingual students (see Garcia et al., 2017) so they can use elements of each of the languages  when they communicate. In doing so, students draw on their language strengths. This perspective has value for inclusive general education classrooms where a student may be an English Learner and use AAC to communicate with peers who are not English Learners or AAC users.

Research on Translanguaging and AAC Users

The research on multilingual AAC users and translanguaging is limited but growing. Indeed, there are a variety of common misconceptions about how English Learners who have communication challenges should be supported in their development of language in English, their home language, and the use of AAC. For students with significant cognitive disabilities, a common misconception is that learning one language is already difficult, and learning two languages would be very difficult. In this view, adding the complexities of using two languages on an AAC device would be beyond the student’s capability. However, Soto & Yu (2014) suggest that learning both languages and providing accessibility on the AAC device is a distinct advantage for the student. Indeed, the acquisition of new words in English improves when paired with the appropriate word to convey a concept in the student’s home language. The work of Soto & Yu (2014) and the work of Garcia et. al (2017) seems to make sense for AAC users who are multilingual. Using a combination of languages together, with intentionality, increases a student’s development across each of those languages. This approach aligns with the least dangerous assumption where a student “deserves the chance to show what they know and can do” before any assumption is developed about what is not feasible (Taub et al., 2019). In homes where English is not the primary language, this also creates a bridge for supporting the use of the AAC device both at school and home because what is being communicated is understood in both environments.

Supporting English Learner/AAC Users:

Here are some strategies that the collaborative team - including both general and special education teachers, related service providers, and other professionals supporting the learner - can use to support translanguaging for English learners with significant cognitive disabilities who are also AAC users.

Team Work by Rojal is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

1) Invite the collaboration of the English learner teacher to provide support to the student who is an AAC User.  Access home language speakers to assist with the proper translation of curriculum materials.

Communication Diary

Communication Dictionary

When student does this...(Form)

It means this...(Intent)

Insert photo, video example

2) Assess and understand the communication forms and language use of all the learners in the classroom including the English learner who is an AAC user. More opportunities for translanguaging can be created if all student languages are known to the team. Develop and maintain a communication dictionary that captures ALL the student’s communication modes unaided (e.g. signs, facial expressions, body language) and aided (e.g. device) including the home language words and phrases. A table format with several columns can be used to keep track of the meanings of words, symbols, or gestures in different contexts.

Make sure to gather input from the family to understand the different ways that the student communicates at home so that they are included in the communication dictionary. Share the dictionary broadly with everyone who supports the student so all forms of expressive communication are understood and acknowledged.

3) Include the AAC user and the family in the design of the AAC content. Doing so ensures that it is meaningful to the student and includes culturally relevant topics, words, and phrases reflective of the home language.  Keep in mind that symbols, colors, and words may have different meanings within different cultures. This approach allows the student to belong in their home language community as well as in their school community and improves student communication and access to academic content overall. It also engages the family in AAC use. 

4) Allow the multilingual AAC user to teach peers how to use their device.  This will support the AAC user in ownership of their learning and will encourage the student to use the device. If the student is a beginning AAC user, support peers to communicate with the student by teaching them together how to use the device, with symbols and words in multiple languages, in fun and engaging activities. For example, the student may have riddles or jokes in both languages for social engagement, where the student can teach the peers the home language.

Example vocabulary file for MultiChat 15 Bilingual AAC device

Fifteen buttons/tiles containing labeled pictures. The labels are:

  • Preguntas - Questions
  • Personas-People
  • Acciones-Actions
  • Describir-Describe
  • Cosas-Things
  • Chat
  • Yo quiero-I want
  • Yo no quiero-I don't want
  • Yo Necesito-I need
  • Borrar-Delete
  • Teclado-Keyboard
  • Palabras esenciales-Core words
  • Escuela-School
  • Mis noticias-My News
  • Mis escenas-My Scenes

5) Create opportunities intentionally for all students, including the English learner who is an AAC user, to teach the languages they speak to each other and you. Use a planning matrix to identify potential opportunities. Columns in the planning matrix can address the communication target (e.g., use voice output device to share messages in either language) and the word, phrase, or type of language use desired.  This helps promote the value of multilingualism and multilingual AAC use, and normalizes it in class.

Communication Activity Matrix

Communication Activity Matrix




Respond (answer questions)

Initiate (comments, feelings)


Confirm Refuse

Morning Routine

Use device to request help

Use device to answer questions

Use device to comment

Use partner assisted scanning (PAS) to choose center

Use head not to confirm or refuse

Language Arts Reading/Writing

Use device to answer questions about story

Use device to comment on story

Use PAS to choose story, reading partner

Use head not to confirm or refuse

Specials Art, PE, Music Technology

Use device to answer question

Use device to comment on the game, music, or art performance

Use PAS to choose exercise, music instrument, art supplies

Use head not to confirm or refuse


Use device to request help

Use device to tell story/joke to peers

Use PAS to choose food

Use PAS to choose food


Ferlazzo, L. (2021, June 28). Four educator recommended approaches for teaching English learners. Education Weekhttps://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-four-educator-recommended-approaches-for-teaching-english-language-learners/2021/06?utm_source=nl&utm_medium=eml&utm_campaign=tu&M=61383340&U=83027&UUID=3bacbe806e5017691d96c2dbf64bb099

Niemeijer, D. (n.d.). Bilingual AAC. Assistiveware. https://www.assistiveware.com/innovations/bilingual-aac

Zangari, C. (2015, July 6). How I do it: Bilingual AAC Assessment Tips by Lindsay Oesch. PracticalAAC. https://praacticalaac.org/praactical/how-i-do-it-bilingual-aac-assessment-tips-by-lindsay-oesch/

Zangari, C. (2014, April 10). PrAACtically SLPs: Hungry for bilingual AAC. PracticalAAC. https://praacticalaac.org/praactical/praactically-slps-hungry-for-bilingual-aac/


  • Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (5th ed.). Multilingual Matters.

  • Coogan, S. (2020). Is AAC a Separate Language. ASHA Leader Live. https://leader.pubs.asha.org/do/10.1044/leader.FMP.25062020.6/full/

  • García, O., Johnson, S., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The Translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Carlson Publishing.

  • Garcia, O., & Lin, A. (2017). Translanguaging in bilingual education. In O. Garcia, S. May, & K. Hornberger (Eds.), Bilingual and multilingual education (3rd edition, pp. 1–20). Springer.

  • Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative competence for individuals who require Augmentative and Alternative Communication: A new definition for a new era of communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3109/07434618.2014.885080

  • Soto, G., & Yu, B. (2014). Considerations for the provision of services to bilingual children who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30(1), 83–92. https://doi.org/10.3109/07434618.2013.878751

  • Taub, D., Wakeman, S., Saunders, A., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2019). Using the least dangerous assumption in educational decisions (TIPS Series: TIP #6). University of Minnesota, TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/foundations-of-inclusion-tips/using-the-least-dangerous-assumption-in-educational-decisions

  • Yu, B. (2013). Issues in bilingualism and heritage language maintenance: Perspectives of minority-language mothers of children with autism spectrum disorders. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 22, 10–24. https://doi.org/10.1044/1058-0360(2012/10-0078)

TIPS Series: Tip #23, April 2021

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

  • Kearns, J., Liu, K. K., Page, J., Cooley-Hidecker, M., & Kleinert, J. (2021). Supporting the Communication Needs of English Learners who are AAC users with Significant Cognitive Disabilities. (TIPS Series: TIP # 23). Minneapolis, MN: 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

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

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