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Everyone can learn: Presuming competence on vocabulary design

Start by presuming that your client is a learner on his/her way to developing competence. Good intervention, consistent language models, the right tools, and plenty of practice will move them along the journey toward improved communication. It’s important that, as clinicians, we truly believe that. Yes, your clients may be impaired, perhaps significantly so, but they will certainly know if you don’t believe in their abilities. Presume competence.” Carole Zangari

How does presuming competence affect the design of AAC vocabularies? It comes down to two principles that apply to all human beings, regardless of diagnosis or degree of difference from the typically developing norm:

  1. Everyone has something to say
  2. Everyone can learn

Everyone has something to say

Every person, regardless of how they appear to the outside observer, has a unique and rich inner life. This life is full of feelings, observations, preferences, opinions, stories, memories, and dreams. Whether or not a person has the means to express his or her inner life in an understandable and consistent way, it is real and it is there. Our goal as AAC interventionists  should be to allow every person to express his or her inner life in a way that is accessible to the person using AAC and understandable to the person listening. This rich inner life extends beyond requesting. It includes all the many reasons human beings communicate with each other.

Everyone can learn

When a person is not able to communicate using speech, we can’t have accurate knowledge of that person’s ability to understand and use language. Because we just don’t know the person’s skills or potential, we make the least dangerous assumption and presume competence. Presuming competence: the only prerequisite to AAC

This does not mean, however, that we must presume that the person is already fully literate with age-appropriate receptive and expressive language skills. It means we don’t and can’t know what that person’s potential is until we provide him or her with accessible tools, and the training needed to use those tools. 

Everyone can learn and grow, given appropriate training and tools. This doesn’t mean that everyone can learn everything. I will never be a championship skier, but with appropriate instruction and practice and ski equipment that fits me properly, I can learn basic moves and become more skilled than I am now. But without skis and instruction, I will never realize my potential as a skier. It’s the same with communication for non-speaking people. Everyone has potential, but the proper AAC system and instruction are needed before that potential can be revealed and realized.

Vocabulary design that presumes competence

How do these two principles - everyone has something to say, and everyone can learn - influence vocabulary design? How can we design vocabulary to make that allows people to reveal and realize their potential?

All the words - and all the word forms

Image of a quote on yellow background. Quote reads: if grammatical forms are not available on an AAC system, it is not going to be possible for them to be learned or used!

AAC learners are in a unique and vulnerable position. They literally can’t say what we don’t give them the words for. We as parents, teachers, and therapists risk being the limiting factor in someone’s language and communication development. That’s why it’s crucial that a well designed vocabulary gives access to as many words as possible. We just don’t know what someone who can’t speak will want to say when they’re given a voice.

In addition to a rich vocabulary, AAC learners need access to the grammatical forms of the words in the AAC system. This includes plurals, possessives and verb conjugations. Research shows that AAC users have particular difficulty learning grammar. While there are a variety of possible causes for this, one clear issue is that if grammatical forms are not available on an AAC system, it’s not going to be possible for them to be learned or used!

All the communication functions

There are so many different reasons why people communicate. We often start with requesting when we teach AAC, because this feels like the easiest place to start. But there are so many other reasons that humans communicate to express their rich inner lives. If we’re presuming competence, we must presume that everyone needs access to all these reasons to communicate. If we don’t provide the words necessary, we’re blocking expression of so much communication! 

All the letters

AAC vocabulary design should not only presume competence for learning a symbol based communication system.  It should also presume competence for learning some level of literacy. The ability to spell independently can give total freedom of expression to an AAC user. He or she will no longer be dependent on a caregiver or therapist to add words to the AAC system. However, even if full literacy isn’t reachable, any degree of spelling is an asset. For example, being able to use initial letter sounds or invented spelling to express something that is not in the AAC vocabulary is an invaluable skill. A vocabulary design that presumes competence and the ability to learn should also give easy and full access to the alphabet! Learn more about teaching effective and efficient literacy skills. 

Model-able and learn-able

If we build an AAC vocabulary based on the presumption that everyone can learn, we must make sure that the vocabulary supports the ways that language is usually learned. A key way language is learned is through observing other people using language in everyday situations. For AAC, this means that family, teachers, and therapists need to use the AAC system when they talk with the AAC learner. For this kind of modeling to be possible, the AAC vocabulary organization needs to be learnable by a wide range of people. This includes those who have no previous AAC or language teaching experience. 

There is no one right way to organize a robust vocabulary. However, there may be a best fit between vocabulary organization and the way that the AAC learner and his or her “modeling team” learn best. Some people need consistent motor or visual patterns. Others may respond better to semantic or pragmatic organization. It’s important to take time to explore the different robust systems out there and find which strategy best meets the specific needs of each particular team. 

It’s the AAC learner’s voice

Presuming competence means presuming everyone is a unique individual with something personal to say. The AAC vocabulary should always be focused on what the AAC learner wants to say, even if it’s not what we want to hear! It should not be centered around controlling the AAC learner with schedules and rules. There is a place for these tools - they are immensely helpful in letting the AAC learner know what is happening, what the expectations are, etc. Visual supports can reduce anxiety and increase self-control and autonomy. But if they’re not self expression, they should not be put in the AAC system. The risk is too great that the AAC learner will see the AAC system as a tool that others use to control him or her, rather than a personal voice.

Everyone can learn. Everyone has something to say - we won’t know what that is until we let them say it.

~ Jennifer Marden 
Jennifer is VP of Clinical Development at AssistiveWare. She became a Speech-Language Pathologist in 1999, after 14 years as a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard. Jennifer specializes in AAC for children and adults with a wide variety of communication disorders, and has provided AAC services in school, hospital, clinic, home, and adult day program settings.

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