The Bridge School

Communicative Competence

Goals to Address Student Knowledge, Skills, and Judgment in Communicative Competence

“Communicative competence rests on the dynamic integration of linguistic, operational, social, and strategic skills in response to the communicative demands within real world interactions with various partners in the natural environment” (Light & McNaughton 2015).

At The Bridge School, the inter-professional team identifies target communication skills by gathering baseline data (Light & Binger 1998). We identify best times to address the skill and train partners as needed, and write IEP goals to address communicative competencies when appropriate.

Students must build skills in the four core domains necessary for communicative competence: operational, strategic, social, and linguistic. Below you will find examples of target skills in each domain, which are appropriate for a range of communicator profiles and skill levels.


Operational Competence refers to learning the skills required to operate and use any AAC devices, tools, and strategies. This includes the skills to produce body-based communication forms such as signs and gestures. For access to aided communication modes such as low-tech boards and SGDs, operational learning includes mastering access methods (e.g., pointing, scanning, eye gaze, etc.), learning navigation patterns and locations of vocabulary, caring for and maintaining devices and materials. In an age of growing technologies and mobile devices, people who rely on AAC may need operational competence with several different devices for different purposes.

Below is a compilation of potential operational competence skills. This list is not meant to be exhaustive and not all skills are appropriate targets for all communicators. One or more skills may be targeted in order to achieve a communication goal, as written in a student’s IEP.

Operational Competence Skills

  • Produce an increased number of non-reflexive, volitional movements.
  • Demonstrate use of differentiated communicative gestures or modified signs.
  • Plan and produce body movements and/or vocalizations for coded communication systems (e.g., Morse code, eye blinks to say yes, etc.)
  • Plan, sequence, and produce body movements to act out messages via pantomime.
  • Orient to objects, locations, people, etc., to communicate desires and direct partners.
  • Produce recognizable gestures during regular, daily interactions for functional communication (e.g., to communicate a request, direct partners, ask for a turn, indicate yes/no, express a concept).
  • Demonstrate consistent volitional control with a predictable response time to:
    • Activate a single switch.
    • Activate 1 switch from 2 or more switches to produce the same response (split switch).
    • Activate 2 switches for 2 different functions.
  • Activate a single switch to:
    • Operate toys, music, and/or other errorless cause and effect activities.
    • Continue actions with appropriate timing in routine-based activities (songs, books, etc.).
    • Gain/direct attention.
    • Take turns in small group activities.
    • Take turns in simple age-appropriate conversations.
  • Develop direct selection skills (point, reach, gaze to locations in environment) to request objects or activities.
  • Demonstrate motor control for direct selection of increasingly smaller targets, within increasingly larger arrays.
  • Demonstrate use of call chime/emergency call device.
  • Demonstrate appropriate timing and motor control to select a desired communication message using scanning:
    • Partner-assisted live voice scanning (with or without visual supports), using signals interpreted correctly by partners.
    • Automatic scanning on SGD or computer.
    • Step scanning on SGD or computer.
  • Seek out communication tools/system for use.
  • Operate low-tech communication book:
    • Request book, identify as own.
    • Open book.
    • Navigate to pages (flip pages, use a table of contents with partner-assisted navigation).
    • Point to desired symbols with increased precision, speed and accuracy.
  • Navigate to specific pages/vocabulary sets appropriate to the communication demands of the activity.
  • Demonstrate increased independence and self-advocacy for device programming, troubleshooting, maintenance, and care of SGD and accessories, by performing and/or directing partners to perform device maintenance and care procedures:
    • Turn on/off device.
    • Charge device.
    • Clean device.
    • Upgrade software.
    • Pack device and accessories safely for transport.
    • Mount device safely.
    • Check internet connections.
  • Demonstrate use of system functions:
    • Turn device on/off.
    • Speech on/off.
    • Clear display.
    • Up a level/ go back.
    • Speak display.
    • Volume up/down.
  • Program content constructed in message window into buttons for later use.
  • Use “stop speaking” function in SGD when appropriate.
  • Control an mp3 player on SGD or other device (play, navigate through songs, stop, pause, etc).
  • Activate an alternative keyboard with word and phrase prediction.
  • Operate adapted keyboard with synthesized speech output software to augment speech.
  • Operate tools to access external devices (environmental control): phone, IR controls, lights, fan, MP3 player, toys, etc.
  • Navigate and operate online email browser.
  • Operate word processor: print, save, open, close documents.
  • Demonstrate mastery of chosen social media platform (navigate to own and others’ profiles, post content, comment on content, post web links and navigate to links, capture and upload photos and videos).
  • Use assistive technology devices to take pictures or videos, and send or post media in chosen format/platform.
  • Operate a mobile device: send and receive SMS text messages and picture text messages.
  • Use assistive technology devices and/or relay services as appropriate to place and answer phone calls.
  • Navigate between apps, communication/other software, and environmental controls.

Strategic competence refers to learning strategies to overcome limitations and barriers encountered in the environment or inherent in their AAC system. Students must develop compensatory strategies to overcome limitations such as insufficient vocabulary programmed into their device, interacting with a partner who may not be familiar or comfortable with AAC, dealing with fatigue or recovery from illness which can impact operational skills. Limitations and barriers may be temporary or long-term. At school, strategic competence also includes learning when and how to use AAC tools and modes appropriately during ongoing instruction and conversation.
Below is a compilation of potential strategic competence skills. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and not all skills are appropriate targets for all communicators. One or more skills may be targeted in order to achieve a communication goal, as written in a student’s IEP.

Strategic Competence Skills

  • Use meaningful attention-seeking signals (e.g. reaching, voice, combination, etc.) that are reliably interpreted by several partners.
  • Use meaningful acceptance/rejection signals that are reliably interpreted by several partners.
  • Ambulate towards preferred objects and activities.
  • Use modified signs and gestures to meet functional communication needs, check for partner understanding.
  • Clearly signal to partner when communication breakdown occurs.
  • Introduce self when appropriate.
  • Use an introduction strategy with unfamiliar partners.
  • Use specific introduction strategy for telephone calls.
  • Use different communication modes appropriately for different contexts, purposes, or partners.
  • Use mementos or remnants to bypass vocabulary limitations and establish topics of interaction.
  • Use effective search and retrieval strategies to locate and produce messages within real-world academic and social situations.
  • Repair communication breakdowns using method other than protest (e.g., repeat message to clarify if partner does not respond appropriately to communication intent).
  • Signal topic changes appropriately.
  • Take nonobligatory turns using short, quick, multifunctional messages (e.g., Quickfires) to maintain, control, or comment, as appropriate to conversation.
  • Direct partners to obtain communication tools/accessories, personal items, school supplies, etc:
    • Use eye/hand pointing to guide partners to locate items.
    • Use low-tech symbols placed on seating equipment.
    • Use preprogrammed messages in SGD.
  • Direct partners in set-up of AAC systems/tools (request tray, positioning, etc.).
  • Choose appropriate message/strategy to signal a communication breakdown.
  • Choose appropriate message/strategy to prevent a communication breakdown.
  • Demonstrate use of communication repair strategies and/or partner-focused communication strategies to repair communication breakdowns or facilitate a communicative exchange:
    • Signal misunderstood message
    • Repeat all/part of message
    • Rephrase message
    • Choose alternate mode
    • Augment speech with spelling
    • Expand intended message
    • Direct partners’ communication behaviors
  • Use appropriate “start over” strategy when message becomes lost through too many attempts to repair.
  • Break down messages into smaller parts to increase intelligibility.
  • Request support for new vocabulary additions to high and low-tech AAC systems.
  • Use existing vocabulary to describe a new word or concept not represented in device.
  • Direct partner to add the missing concept to a selected location within AAC device.
  • Use a “sounds-like” or “sort of like” symbol in combination with a word/message that is available within device to direct partners towards an intended message, then direct partner to add item to current vocabulary set in a selected location.
  • Use appropriate rate enhancement strategies with high- and low-tech tools (e.g., telegraphic messages, shorten words, word prediction, abbreviation expansion, partner prediction, etc.).
  • Ask partners to repeat/clarify during academic and social routines.
  • Request co-construction (ask partner to “guess” to bypass vocabulary and/or time constraints).
  • Direct partners in personal care, well-being, comfort, and daily living routines.
  • Prepare messages ahead of time when appropriate, compose and store messages for later use.
  • Increase social networks via regular use of social media.

Social Competence refers to the skills necessary for functional use of AAC tools and strategies to meet individual communication goals and needs. This includes discourse skills such as taking conversational turns, staying on-topic in a conversation, expressing many different communicative functions and interpersonal skills such as making friends and expressing a positive self-image. Below is a compilation of potential social competence skills. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and not all skills are appropriate targets for all communicators. One or more skills may be targeted in order to achieve a communication goal, as written in a student’s IEP.

Social Competence Skills

  • Reference communication partners, including same-age peers, using eye contact, social gaze patterns, physical proximity.
  • Demonstrate behaviors with social intents (e.g., seeking attention, seeking assistance, seeking affection, seeking interaction) towards familiar communication partners.
  • Gain partners’ attention by ambulating near to them, stopping, looking at partner and selecting appropriate greeting message on SGD (or using voice if SGD is unavailable).
  • Use natural behaviors or gestures to indicate social attention and interest in peer communication partner.
  • Participate in simple games with peers by communicating a desire using a reliable response (e.g., looking, touching, saying a word with speech or SGD).
  • Produce greeting and farewells (e.g., body-based gestures, pre-programmed messages in SGD).
  • Produce spoken or pre-programmed conventional greetings and farewells appropriately.
  • Participate actively in interactions.
  • Demonstrate turn-taking during social interactions, social action games, songs, etc.
    • Using body movements/ gestures;
    • Simple digitized SGD;
    • Complex SGD.
  • Demonstrate friendship building skills:
    • Ask peers to participate in pretend play;
    • Communicate concern, comfort or help when a peer is hurt or distressed;
    • Identify another child as a friend, ask them to play on a regular basis;
    • Engage with peer(s) in cooperative play involving a common idea or purpose.
  • Produce friendship-building messages with peers (e.g., compliments, other-focused comments, encouragement, jokes, etc.).
  • Project unique personality and positive self-image using pre-programmed messages (e.g., with songs, sound effects, age-appropriate language) on SGD.
  • Produce messages with greetings and jokes.
  • Take obligatory conversation turns appropriately.
  • Produce contingent responses to maintain conversations using multiple communication modes.
  • Initiate and terminate conversations using pre-programmed messages within SGD.
  • Ask appropriate partner-focused questions.
  • Produce appropriate polite social forms.
  • Protest appropriately, using language as a tool to express desires, negotiate, self-advocate, and propose resolutions.
  • Introduce self-selected topics.
  • Appropriately enter into conversations mid-stream.
  • Introduce and respond to topics of various types in social contexts with peers and adults:
    • Other-oriented topics (What did you do this weekend?);
    • Asking open-ended questions (What kinds of things do you like to do?);
    • Future-related topics (What are you doing this weekend?);
    • Fantasy-related topics (What do you want to be when you grow up?).
  • Maintain conversation cohesion and coherence by composing messages with enough information and of appropriate length.
  • Communicate a full range of communicative functions:
  • Commenting, explaining, or disagreeing;
  • Exchanging information;
  • Predicting and anticipating;
  • Requesting information, objects or actions;
  • Projecting;
  • Producing performatives (jokes, teasing, etc);
  • Reporting on past experiences;
  • Reasoning and explaining;
  • Imagining.

Linguistic Competence refers to knowledge, judgment and skill in the individual’s native language code within their families and communities. This includes both spoken and written language. Additionally, students who rely on AAC must understand and use the representational strategies and/or “language” codes of various AAC systems, and learn specific linguistic information related to curricular content. Below is a compilation of potential linguistic competence skills. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and not all skills are appropriate targets for all communicators. One or more skills may be targeted in order to achieve a communication goal, as written in a student’s IEP.

Linguistic Competence Skills

  • Demonstrate comprehension of vocabulary within familiar routines and lessons.
  • Demonstrate understanding of symbols (e.g., objects, realistic photos, picture symbols, abstract symbols or icons, written words, etc.)
  • Express concepts using representational strategies.
  • Combine AAC symbols meaningfully to express more complex messages.
  • Code-switch between primary and secondary languages.
  • Use increasingly more complex language to express self, building messages with phrases as well as single words related to topics of interest.
  • Learn and use age-appropriate language to ask age-appropriate questions.
  • Expand concept knowledge within familiar daily routines.
  • Use conventional gestures and objects to gain an adult’s attention while participating in familiar, motivating school routines (giving, showing, pointing).
  • Understand and use language to express concepts within academic themes and activities.
  • Take nonobligatory turns using short, quick, multifunctional messages (e.g., Quickfires) to maintain, control, or comment, as appropriate to conversation.
  • Use appropriate English word order in spoken sentences.
  • Expand conceptual knowledge of age and grade-appropriate vocabulary and search and retrieve messages within real-world academic and social situations.
  • Independently use SGD to maintain active participation during academic instruction and social routines by making comments, asking questions and contributing ideas.
  • Use existing vocabulary to describe a new word or concept not represented in device.
  • Use conventional abbreviations, acronyms, emoticons, etc., in email and text messages.
  • Demonstrate independent spelling skills at age level with or without word prediction.
  • Use appropriate code-switching techniques when speaking in formal versus casual situations.
  • Use increasingly more complex story structure while writing and/or retelling narratives (nonfiction and fiction).
  • Demonstrate independent, appropriate use of self-advocacy vocabulary, to include: messages to direct others to assist as needed with daily living skills, messages to repair communication breakdowns, messages to help advocate for access to recreation/leisure activities.
  • Produce messages using “literate” language when writing messages of increasing length and complexity using AACsystems.



Light, J. and Binger, C. (1998). Building Communicative Competence with Individuals Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Light, J. & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative Competence for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: A new definition for a new era of communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30:1, p1-18.

Light, J. and McNaughton, D. (2015). Designing AAC research and intervention to improve outcomes for individuals with complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 31:2, 85-96.