TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #17
What is Communicative Competence for and with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Users?

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


This TIP provides information about what competence in communication means for all students but also the additional competencies required of students who use AAC.  It is important that communication partners (e.g. teachers, peers) demonstrate competence by understanding the additional skills required of an AAC user.

What is communicative competence?

Communicative competence refers to the skills needed for successful communication between two or more people. All people need linguistic and social skills. Linguistic skills include understanding and using vocabulary and grammar. Social skills include knowing and using conversation rules that vary by situations (Chomsky, 1965; Hymes, 1964).

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) users need two additional sets of skills: operational and strategic. Operational skills include knowing how the AAC system works. Strategic skills are ways that the AAC user and their communication partner work together to overcome some of the challenges of the AAC system (Light & McNaughton, 2014). For example, when the AAC system does not have the specific vocabulary for ice cream flavors, an AAC user may use colors to talk about flavors. It is important to remember that AAC involves using unaided and aided methods to support or replace using one’s natural speech. AAC users can choose to use a combination of gestures, vocalizations, and spoken language to enhance/aid communication in place of, or in addition to, their AAC device.

What does communicative competence mean for classmates and AAC users?

AAC users who do not demonstrate communicative competence are often left out of social and academic aspects of the classroom (Biggs et al., 2018). Indeed, without demonstrating their communicative competence, the inclusive classroom is often not considered as a placement option for an AAC user or a potential AAC user (Kleinert et al., 2015). However, the inclusive classroom may be the BEST option for AAC users as it provides:

  • increased opportunities for learning and displaying competence in communication;
  • development of literacy skills to enhance language development (Erickson et al., 2020);
  • opportunities for social engagement with competent communication partners;
  • increased opportunities for building social relationships; and
  • increased motivation to communicate with same age peers.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) on the Communication Needs of Individuals with Significant Disabilities recommends that AAC users have the right to “access environmental contexts, interactions, and opportunities that promote participation as full communication partners with other people, including peers” (Brady et al., 2016, Table 2). Communicative competence is a partnership where both the AAC user and the communication partners grow their skills. Teaching communication partners ‘the language of AAC’ will build the communicative competence of both the partner and the AAC user.

To support the AAC User and their partners in the inclusive classroom, try these strategies:

1. Empower peers and increase their communicative competence by teaching them about AAC use and encouraging them to support the AAC user (Biggs et al., 2017).

2. Model communication using an AAC system for everyone, every day, at every opportunity.

3. Evaluate communication breakdowns and problem solve.

  • Does the AAC User have the words needed to engage in social interactions? For example, a symbol set for social interactions can include representations of words like “Hey”, “Good Morning”, “What’s Up”, “OK” “Awesome”, and “See you later”.
  • Does the AAC user have the words needed to participate in specific class activities? For example, a symbol set for use in science experiment lessons might include question words, verbs for procedures, and adjectives for describing.

4. Build literacy skills among all class members. For AAC users, this will improve their AAC use through language development, spelling, and writing (Erickson & Koppenhaver, 2020). In addition, spelling provides an additional communication alternative. All students could learn to spell words by pointing to letters a letter board. The letter board could have vowels on the left side and consonants on the right side to help students find them easily.

5. Finally, engage the inter-professional team to problem-solve for the student and their classmates to build their literacy and communicative competence. Include the AAC user and their family members in decision-making regarding the AAC device.​


  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-122.1.25

  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., Mazur, E., Barnes, K., & Bumble, J. L. (2018). Embedding peer-implemented aided AAC modeling within a peer network intervention for students with complex communication needs. Exceptional Children, 85, 66–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402918792899

  • Brady, N. C., Bruce, S., Goldman, A., Erickson, K., Mineo, B., Ogletree, B. T., … Wilkinson, K. (2016). Communication services and supports for individuals with severe disabilities: Guidance for assessment and intervention. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 121(2), 121–138. https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-121.2.121

  • Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

  • Erickson, K. A., & Koppenhaver, D. A. (2020). Comprehensive literacy for all: Teaching students with significant disabilities to read and write. Brookes Publishing.

  • Hymes, D. (1964). Introduction: Toward ethnographies of communication. American Anthropologist, 66, 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1964.66.suppl_3.02a00010

  • Kleinert, H., Towles-Reeves, E., Quenemoen, R., Thurlow, M., Fluegge, L., Weseman, L., & Kerbel, A. (2015). Where students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are taught:  Implications for general curriculum access. Exceptional Children, 81, 312–329. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402914563697

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

TIPS Series: Tip #17, 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., Page, J., Cooley-Hidecker, M., Kleinert, J., Stone, K., & Norris, A. (2021). What is Communicative Competence for and with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Users? (TIPS Series: Tip #17). 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


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