Consider communication functions

There are many reasons to communicate. We call these communication functions. Think about communication functions, so we can plan and then model words that will build language and meaningful communication. We can expand an AAC user’s world beyond choice-making!

For people using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) as an alternative to talking, they need language. Language is about words and sentences - used to speak and listen, and even read and write.

We need language so we can communicate for a wide variety of reasons. We call these reasons, communication functions. We can define communication functions as the different reasons that we communicate every day with the world around us.

AAC should give communicators words to say what they think, ask for things, tell stories and jokes, ask questions, and share what they know.

Modeling communication functions

To learn the language needed to communicate for different reasons, AAC learners need to see others do it. When modeling, we point to words on the user’s AAC system as we talk to them during day-to-day interactions. And just like we model to teach vocabulary and different ways to combine words, we also model examples of different communication functions. We can show how we can communicate different messages for different reasons using the AAC. We do this modeling regularly and reliably.

Beyond requesting

A common limitation in AAC systems and teams’ support of AAC users is focusing only on one communication function: requesting. AAC users can get really good at asking for things. They can make requests for food, favorite shows, places to go, YouTube videos, etc. Making requests is motivating for AAC users. It may be one of the first reasons they use their AAC.

However, there is far more to language and communication than just requesting. There are many more reasons to communicate. Give AAC users the words to share information, tell stories, make comments, and tell us what they think. Developing these skills makes real connections possible.

Find a full list of communication functions in the AssistiveWare Core Word Classroom.

Illustration with three people each holding a sign with a symbol on it
When we consider the reason we want to communicate, that can help us to decide what words may need to be taught and modeled.

Plan for different communication functions

It can be very useful to consider communication functions as you plan goals and activities for AAC users. We can consider the reason we want to communicate. This help us to decide what words may need to be taught and modeled.

The first step is to think about which communication functions to start teaching. The chart below gives examples of different communication functions. Which of these is your AAC user already using? Which do you want to teach next? Which phrases do you think would be most helpful to model?

This table includes words to model with a core and fringe word based vocabulary, like Proloquo2Go.

Communication Function

Core words to model

Core words with fringe to model
Requestingwant, want that, want different, want more, I wantwant food, want to play, I want red, I want to watch TV
Protestingnot, not that, stopnot red, not that game, stop that music
Commenting/ directingget, get it, get that, I get that put in, put it in, take out, take it out make more, make big see, see them give me, give me thatget the blue one, put on your hat, make a cake, do more swinging, I see the car, give me my cup please
Asking for informationwhat? what that? where? where go? who? who go?When are we going to shopping? Where is David? Who is going to the party?
Giving opinionslike, I like that not like, I don’t like it good, bad, that good, that badI like chocolate, I don’t like spiders, pizza is good, Mondays are bad
Tell newsI go, I see, I eat I went, I saw, I ateI went to the park, I see Dad, I ate rice for dinner on Saturday
Starting a conversationwhat? what do? I like that, what you like? I go there, where you go?What are you doing on the weekend? I went to the beach I like movies, what do you like?

Please note: You might point to just some of the key words in these examples. However, you can also say the whole sentence as you model. For example: Say “You need to put your hat on", while pointing to “put” and “on”.

For more ideas, we recommend visiting the AssistiveWare Core Word Classroom. Here, you will find many planner documents. These planners cover many everyday activities and core words. They give examples for ways to use different communication functions in the activities you are already doing.

Start using different communication functions

Looking at communication functions is a valuable strategy for planning AAC goals and targeting words to model.

Follow the links below for more strategies to get started communicating:

Now that we have started communicating using AAC, next we can consider ways to start building language and communication.

Links & References