Modeling Language with AAC

Modeling Language with AAC

In this post, we are going to talk about a very important strategy that all communication partners for emergent AAC users should use, that goes by many names. Some of these names are modeling, aided language input, and aided language stimulation. They all mean the same thing, it’s really more of a preference as to which word you use. Throughout this post, I am going to use the term “modeling”. 

Now, if you are thinking, what is that AAC thing that she was talking about? Pause here and go back to read this post – “Introduction to AAC, Core & Fringe Vocabulary”. After you read that post you will have a better understanding of the basics of AAC and therefore be able to gain more information from reading this post.

What is Modeling?

Ok – the first question you probably have is “What is modeling?” No, it’s not walking around on a catwalk and it has nothing to do with fashion. As opposed to that kind of modeling, this is the type of modeling that anyone can do! Yes, now is your turn to be a Supermodel!

image with caption "I Never Thought I'd Be a Model, But, Here I Am Modeling AAC and Killing It!

I never thought I’d be a model but here I am modeling AAC and killing it!

Simply put, modeling with an AAC system is pointing to symbols in a communication system as you verbally say a word. Pay attention to those words, we are only talking about what we as the communication partners are doing and not about what the student is doing. The focus of modeling is on what we are providing to the students. There are no expectations for the student – except for their presence. That’s it! As long as the student is present, we can model language for them. 

graphic stating "Modeling is: Pointing to Symbols As You Say the Word

Modeling Is: Pointing to Symbols As You Say The Word

The focus of modeling is on what WE are providing to the students. There are NO expectations for the student – except for their presence.

If you’ve ever seen a core vocabulary communication board or any AAC system, you have seen these fun, often colorful, pictures, called symbols, with words underneath them, arranged in a grid – like this.

core vocabulary communication board example

Example of a Core Vocabulary Communication Board

This is an example of a core vocabulary communication board. For our AAC users, learning how to use these symbols to communicate is similar to us learning a new language. 

Why do we need to model language?

I don’t know about you but if I am learning a new language, the addition of pictures or some way to visually show the word I’m learning, will help me learn and remember the word for future use. The addition of pictures also activates another mode of learning through making language visual which often helps students learn and remember what various words mean. Learning to use symbolated language is similar to learning a new spoken language. 

In order to teach our students how to use this new language system of symbols we have to teach them how to use the system by using the system that they are using. Now, these core vocabulary based AAC systems may not look confusing and may be clear for us as communication partners, however we are able to read the labels underneath the words to ensure that we know what the pictures are representing. 

We have to teach them HOW to use the system by USING the system that they are using.

If we took the words or labels away and just left the pictures, do you think you’d be able to know what the pictures represented? Some probably yes, as they are easily represented in pictures such as the “stop” sign as well as “eat” and “drink”. However, others are much more difficult to “symbolate”  or turn into pictures, such as “more”, “all”, “do”, “turn”, etc. So, if we don’t teach our students what these pictures and symbols represent, how can we expect them to understand what the symbols mean, much less use them to communicate with us? This is why we need to use, and talk to students with, their AAC system!

How do I model language?

So, now that we know what modeling is and why we need to do it, let’s talk about how to model language on AAC systems for our students. The first thing I want you to know is that you should continue to speak to the students as you normally would. You can and should continue speaking to students in phrases and sentences as you have been, there is not a need to only verbally say the words and symbols that you are pointing to and modeling. 

With that said, it is most beneficial to model one word above what the student is currently able to use independently. What that means is that if a student is not yet using or initiating any communication via symbols and/or AAC, you should only model one word/symbol for them. If a student is independently using one word/symbol to communicate via AAC, you can then model two words for them to help expand their symbol use for communication.

Feeling Overwhelmed?

If you are feeling overwhelmed with all this information, let me assure you and remind you that you can do this! Do not worry about doing it “wrong” – there is no right or wrong words to model on any AAC system. Modeling any words is better than modeling no words.

In fact, you can model different words every time you engage in an activity! For example, during book reading, during one reading you can model the words “turn”, “look”, “like”, “I”, etc and on another reading of the same book, you could model the words, “my”, “you”, “more”, “again”, “yes”, etc. Both readings are equally important. That’s one of the wonderful things of core vocabulary based AAC systems – you can model a variety of words and all are appropriate!

Modeling ANY words is better than modeling NO words.

Another worry of some that are not yet familiar and/or comfortable with modeling words/symbols is that they don’t know where all the symbols are within the AAC system. That’s totally ok – and normal!

I am familiar with many different AAC systems and I still have difficulty finding symbols sometimes. There is not need to wait until you know where all the words/symbols are before you start modeling. If you do that, you will never start modeling language for your students!

When you find yourself in the situation where you can’t find the word/symbol that you are looking for, talk through the process you are using to find the word aloud – so the student can hear you. I often say things like: “I can’t find ‘play’. Where did that word go? Hmmm…” while I’m saying this, I am scanning the board, tracking with my index finger as if I am pointing. Then, when I find the word/symbol I am looking for, I say, “Oh! I found it, there’s ‘play’” and then I restate what I was going to say – for example “Do you want to play?”

Talking through your strategy to find the word that you are looking for helps the kiddo/student to know that they are not alone if they do not know where all the words/symbols on their AAC system are. It also teaches and shows them that they don’t have to be perfect and that it’s ok to make mistakes, everyone does.

If you are still overwhelmed, try this – pick one word/symbol from the core vocabulary AAC system that your student uses and model that one word/symbol as often as you can throughout the day. When you feel comfortable with that word/symbol you can then change to a different word/symbol to model. I know that as you continue to practice modeling, you will become more comfortable with it and will be modeling a variety of different words/symbols before you know it!

Hopefully, by this point, you are feeling more comfortable with what modeling is, why we should use it and how to use it. To wrap things up, I want to touch on some questions that are frequently asked when I teach on this topic. 

Frequently Asked Questions:

Graphic stating: "Who Should Be Modeling Language On Students' AAC Systems?"

Who Should Be Modeling Language On Students’ AAC Systems?

Everyone! All people that the student could possibly communicate with throughout their day should model language! Adults and children, teachers and peers, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc. Anyone that would or does normally talk to the student, should continue to do so, with the addition of modeling the words they are saying on the student’s AAC system. This helps student’s learn that communication happens everywhere with everyone and is not an activity that only happens with certain people. 

Graphic stating: "Where Should We Model Language?"

Where Should We Model Language?

Everywhere! Just as we are encouraging the student to communicate with everyone – we should also be encouraging them to communicate everywhere they go! We are able to communicate wherever we go and so should our AAC users! You can help make this easier through ensuring that the student has access to their AAC device/system wherever they go. This could be through the student taking their device/system with them, or having multiple copies of their communication system in various locations throughout their day for easier access.

Graphic stating: "What If They Aren't Looking At The AAC System When I'm Modeling?"

What If They Aren’t Looking At The AAC System When I’m Modeling?

It’s ok! Even if they don’t seem like they are looking or listening – keep going, you will be amazed at what they are picking up, hearing, etc! Some students may be looking out of their peripheral vision or in a way that’s not obvious. They may look when you look away, which means that you would most likely miss seeing them look. This could be for various reasons, for example, some students may have difficulty looking at, listening to and processing information all at once – it’s too much of a strain on their sensory systems. They may need to look, listen and attend at different times to help increase their attention and comprehension. The biggest thing to remember is that we don’t have to wait for the student to look at the symbol/word before we model that word/symbol. If we do that we will miss many opportunities to model language for our students. “If we wait for the look, we will never get to the language!”

Graphic stating: "What If They Won't Let You Model On Their Device, Core Board, etc?"

What If They Won’t Let You Model On Their Device, Core Board, etc?

Honor that – it’s their language system. If we want to instill a sense of ownership in the student with their AAC system, (and we do)  we need to teach and show the student that their AAC system is theirs and that they are able to make choices about who uses their system and who doesn’t. 

To combat this and ensure that we are still able to model language for our students throughout their day, it is important to have an additional version of the student’s language system – you will most likely have to make a paper version of a digital device – to model language on.

Another option is to see if they will let you “point” to model without touching their device/core board – hovering your finger over the symbols or use a laser pointer or finger light to model without touching their system.

Now that we have reached the end of this post, I hope that you feel much more comfortable with modeling – what it is, why we use it, and how to do it. If you have any questions about modeling, please feel free to reach out via email or through posting your question in the comments below. 

If you’d like to see some examples of modeling within AAC systems, check out the videos posted on the SENSEable Literacy YouTube channel!

The content of this post in video format can also be found here: