You Are A Model

Two people - One is holding up a paper.

An 18-month-old child has been exposed to 4,380 waking hours of oral language. A typical AAC user, exposed to modeling, two times a week for 30 minutes, would take 84 years to have the same level of exposure.

Babies hear thousands of words modeled before they begin to speak. They have many chances to copy what they hear. We all need to hear the words of a language before we can speak the words. When we are immersed in a language, we make it our own. Imagine trying to learn to speak another language without hearing it spoken. What would that be like? Would you be successful?

The same is true for people with complex communication needs. Whatever methods we want to encourage, we need to use. The communication methods need to come alive. If we want to encourage gestures without speech, we need to use gestures without speaking. If we are trying to promote facial expressions, we become expressive ourselves. If the person has a device, we need to use it, show it, and model it.

How does learning a new communication method compare to learning a second language? We know from research on learning a second language that most people learn at a basic level in 2-3 years. More complicated proficiency takes 5-7 years. If we use these time periods to set goals for use a new method, we may need to model the new method for a long time.

So how do we start to model methods?

  • Use the method yourself with the person and others.
  • Slow down. We build speed over time. When we are learning something new, sometimes slower is better.
  • Make it a dance. Take your cues from the situation. If the person seems to want your help getting started, okay. If not, be patient.
  • Talk about what you want. (i.e. “I want to show you how to say that with your talker.”)
  • Mess up. Showing a person how to repair a message is part of the process.
  • Say the same thing over and over again. For example, if you are encouraging a head nod for “no” – do it repeatedly.
  • Use the method in lots of different situations and places.
  • Use the method throughout the day.
  • Focus on keywords or key messages with lots of impact in many situations.


Print Materials

Alt image for concept handout

Related Videos

This video provides a great visual explanation of how modeling works for AAC.

Deepen Your Understanding

Modeling AAC

When you search the internet for videos on modeling AAC, the majority are of children, often in school settings. This might lead one to wonder if modeling is an effective strategy to use with older students or adults, and what that would look like? The answer is yes, the research shows that it is.

How do we define modeling? To quote the work of Sennott, Light, & McNaughton, it is “AAC modeling as a primary component of… intervention, defined as the communication partners (a) modeling aided AAC as they speak and (b) participating in the context of a naturalistic communication interaction.” In other words, it is using the AAC device, whether high tech or low tech, to engage in conversation and show the learner how their words are organized.

It is having a conversation about important, everyday topics, in context, and demonstrating that the communication device is a valuable and valued means for that communication. It is building social relationships by showing that you use the device, too, and respect the feedback of your partner. It is also about recognizing and responding to the other forms of communication we are offered. It is inviting, not forcing, someone to engage in the dance of communicative exchange.

Don’t worry, you do not have to be perfect. You do not need to have memorized that layout of the vocabulary on the device. You can explore together. Talk about what you are doing: “Let’s see, where can we find that word? Maybe it’s in Places…” The process isn’t about perfection. It is about engagement. For adults with intellectual disabilities, access to AAC (and modeling) is vital. How often does someone take the time to sit with them and really listen? How often does someone demonstrate that they truly want to hear what that person has to say?

By engaging with the user, showing that their method of communicating is valued, and conversing about meaningful topics, you can be a force for change. You can help bring about skills acquisition in the areas of social language, word knowledge, and language structure (Sennott, Light, & McNaughton, 2016). You are not giving someone a voice; rather you are helping their inner voice to emerge.