The Bridge School

Communicative Competence

Selecting Goals

Communicative competence goals should target those skills which ultimately lead to a student’s authentic participation in social and academic life, “to effectively and efficiently engage in a variety of interactions and participate in activities of their choice” (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013). The Bridge School staff find Patricia Dowden’s (1999) framework helpful in planning and goal setting for three differentiated communicator profiles:


Emergent communicators use facial expressions, body language, gestures, vocalizations, and other non-symbolic modes of communication, which may be idiosyncratic and not immediately apparent to unfamiliar partners. At this level, any use of intelligible speech, symbols, or signs is limited and often used inappropriately.

These individuals communicate primarily about the “here and now,” unless with a highly familiar partner who has shared experiences or is able to guess their intent. Interventions for emerging communicators focus on establishing more reliable communication behaviors, moving towards symbolic expression, and increasing opportunities for interactions with more partners about a broader range of topics.

Goals for emergent communicators focus on identifying, developing and/or shaping reliable, intelligible communication signals and training communication partners to use supportive strategies to help facilitate interactions. Goals also target increasing opportunities for authentic interactions across the student’s day and providing language-rich experiences that encourage learning, participation and communication.


Context-dependent communicators use reliable symbolic communication modes, but communication may still be limited to certain partners, topics, or contexts. These limitations may occur because the individual’s speech is unintelligible or because the communication strategies they use are so unique that interactions must be facilitated by a familiar partner.

Context-dependent communicators may lack experience with appropriate AAC interventions, lack access to sufficient vocabulary, or lack conventional literacy skills. These factors means the individual is dependent upon others to select and program words and messages for them. Interventions for context-dependent communicators focus on increasing access to vocabulary, building literacy skills, and broadening the person’s ability to communicate with multiple of communication partners and across contexts. Additionally, intervention can focus on integrating all available communication modes into a repertoire of effective communication strategies.

Goals for context-dependent communicators target increasing access to vocabulary, and developing language and literacy skills. These learners are becoming less dependent on their partners to support their interactions and are learning to use a range of AAC tools and communication modes strategically across contexts, partners, activities and topics.


Independent communicators interact with familiar and unfamiliar partners, about any topic or context. Independent communicators are literate and able to generate completely novel messages, rather than rely on pre-programmed messages. They may be adept at using a variety of communication modes and strategies appropriately in different contexts and with different partners.

Intervention goals for independent communicators focus on rate enhancement strategies, gaining more operational competencies and refining access to new technologies and communication formats (email, social media, etc.).

Goals for independent communicators often focus on increasing the speed of communication by teaching students new strategies or introducing new AAC/AT tools and mainstream technologies. These learners are literate, so they are able to communicate about anything, anytime. They may benefit from refining social skills, increasing participation in everyday activities, teaching advocacy skills and broadening social networks.

All communicators should have active, age-appropriate involvement in their own goal setting to whatever extent they are able and wish to participate.

Goals for all learners with complex communication needs should take into account:


Blackstone, S. & Hunt Berg, M. (2012). Social Networks: A Communication Inventory for Individuals with Complex Communication Needs and their Communication Partners. Wisconsin: Attainment Company, Inc.

Beukelman, D. and Mirenda, P. (2013). Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Supporting children & adults with complex communication needs. Fourth Ed. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Dowden, P.A. (1999). Different Strokes for Different Folks. Augmentative Communication News, vol 12, pp7-8.