AAC and Teaching Intentional Communication

"Assume intention to teach intention." quote from Kate Ahern

In the past two weeks, I have been mulling over something that Kate Ahern said during her presentation at AAC in the Cloud.

“Assume intention to teach intention.”

How do we acquire vocabulary, and intentional use of language through AAC?  

How do any of us learn a new language?  AAC’s best practices are based on the model of natural language acquisition. When a child begins to vocalize, we naturally infer meaning. When a baby says, “MAMA”, we don’t treat this as random practice with speech sounds.  We say, “Yes, Mama, you said my name! You’re so smart!”

When we want to learn a second language, we are far more likely to be successful if we are immersed in that language. We won’t learn effectively from watching it on television. We need to be surrounded by communication partners who respond to our attempts and treat them as meaningful.  I experienced this living and studying in Sweden. 

Language is a dance.  Without feedback from a partner, it is hard to know when you are getting your moves right. If you say a word, and are ignored, you don’t get feedback on what that word means. When words are taken out of context, and placed on the grid of an AAC device, confirmation of meaning is even more important.  

So, what does this mean in practice? If the new AAC learner appears to press a “random” button, I am still going to respond. 

“Did you say SOCKS?  Yes, I have new socks on today, aren’t they cool?” (shows off new socks) Are you wearing socks today?”  

A sock with stars, comets, and the words "space cadet" on it.

Now, the socks have been placed in a meaningful conversational context. 

 If the learner appears to request “water”, when I know they really like “juice”, I am going to respond by offering water.  Now the representation of the word , “water”, has been given meaning. This is an opportunity for learning, as well as for learning communication repair.

There are no required prerequisite skills for using AAC. We can teach meaning, and intention, by using the device meaningfully. The converse is true. If we don’t treat communication as meaningful, it won’t be.


Click on the link below to download the poster.

Assume Intention Poster


Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

2 comments on “AAC and Teaching Intentional Communication

  1. A most excellent reason to insist on the inclusion of students who rely on, or who learning AAC in the general ed classroom! Immersion in the language and an abundance of communication partners who can give meaningful feedback.

    1. Yes indeed! There is so much more opportunity for hearing and using language in a meaningful context!

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